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Smart Innovation Adapts to Any Problem or Situation

By Michael S. Slocum

Innovation is usually thought of as the creation of an idea or concept that is novel. It has been the pursuit of a new way to perform a required function. The search for what was previously undiscovered has been the goal of ideation activities for most as far back as can be remembered. The search for the undiscovered has fueled ingenuity but that perspective is changing – the way people innovate is changing as the field evolves.

Innovation’s History

Historically, innovation has been practiced as an art – smart people apply black-box thought to generate solutions to problems. There was no recognizable or algorithmic approach to the field and the concept of innate innovativeness spread. The theory of innovative scarcity was formed based on this (erroneous) presumption that a person is born innovative.

Today, however, the practice of ideation can be reduced to a set of principles that may embody sets of algorithms that describe the innovation function. Scientific components are applied to the field to complement the existing artistic components, yielding repeatability, predictability and reliability. The reduction of innovation to an exact science (or at least going in that direction) has produced trainable (and validated) methods for achieving systematic innovation. The innovative capability of each person who is exposed to these methods is increased. This universal increase in the organization’s innovation quotient is the father of the theory of innovation plenty.

Innovation’s Future

The global impact of innovation also has changed dramatically. Innovation is capable of creating a multitude of sub-innovations. The discovery of scientific phenomenon has been the driving force for the creation of entire fields of commerce and innovation including:

  • The Internet: International pockets of innovation and invention
  • E-commerce: Innovations created to match sellers and buyers
  • Transaction security: Derived since the advent of the Internet

The pace of change has increased as well. Societal and customer needs are changing faster than ever before, demanding that businesses respond faster.

There is an argument that all that can be invented has been invented or, at least, that the number of high-level inventions has diminished over time with the overwhelming majority of patents issued being on a significantly lower innovative level. German writer Johann von Goethe stated that innovation changed such that the solution to a problem may already exist and that the problem solver’s task is to find those pre-existing solutions and adapt them to suit a particular purpose. This is a different approach to the search for an innovative solution – pursuing analogy rather than novelty.

Non-linear problem solving begins with the specific and heads to the generic – this generalization is the key to adaptive innovation. Adaptive innovation is the key to the ability of an organization’s ability to respond quickly to the needs of society and the customer – it leverages any ability to adapt and existing solution to suit for its purposes. This “adaptivation” should be pursued as part of any problem solving activity.

Adaptivation efforts are successful due to the work that has been achieved in fields in which patents and invention disclosures have been analyzed in order to catalog the efforts of previous problem solvers. These efforts are made available to the problem solver through the field of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ).

TRIZ Is Adaptive

A fundamental aspect of TRIZ is the analysis of previous problem solving records – invention disclosure, patent records and historical observations classified as heuristics. Observations about the specific problem and the specific solution were made and coupled with analysis that likened specific problems and specific solutions into abstract groups. These abstract groups are usable when a specific problem is converted to an abstract problem that is analogous to one of the abstract problems from the researched group. A matrix then provides the appropriate solution concepts from the solution group.

This empirical approach allows the problem solver to practice systematic adaptation, reducing innovation process cycle-time. TRIZ precludes the generation of previously discovered solutions, thereby eliminating the waste of duplication from innovation – increasing the process’ efficiency and effectiveness. Improvements in ideation develop an organization’s ability to respond at the same rate of evolution for the societal and customer needs. This non-linear approach is both convergent and divergent and, therefore, works with different problem solving styles. Adaptivation allows a company to increase performance across several problem solving metrics by integrating the work of past problem solvers. The process is relatively easy to learn and competency can be established in a few months.

Adaptivation needs to become a key competency in the preservation strategy of an organization, while also being the first step in the evolution strategy – an ambidextrous application of adaptivation across a business. Doing more with the resources a company already has is an ideal solution; leveraging the pre-existing work of others expands corporate intellect. This is a robust method of expanding the search space during problem solving. The expansion of the search space integrates another key component necessary in today’s evolving competitive environment – open innovation.

Adaptivation as an Open Approach

Adaptivation provides insight into solutions to analogous problems from differing industries, technologies and scientific fields. This is an open approach to solution generation and it provides additional benefits to the problem solver. Not only are pre-existing approaches considered but the search space for these solutions is considerably larger than the organization’s typical search space. An organization typically looks inward at existing patents, competitive intelligence or for team members to create a solution based on previous experience. Collectively this describes the closed approach to innovation whose narrow-minded focus is no longer an acceptable ideation approach given the evolving natures of competition and innovation.

About the Author:

Michael S. Slocum, Ph.D., is the principal and chief executive officer of The Inventioneering Company. Contact Michael S. Slocum at michael (at) or visit