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Creativity and Innovation: Try River-Jumping

By Detlev Ponnwitz

Innovation is vital to a company’s growth. It is sensible to establish a work environment that encourages people to be creative – a prerequisite to innovation. But creating such a culture from scratch takes time.

Learn and Practice Creative Habits

In most endeavors, the human brain uses an automatic and subconscious classification system based on past experiences. When it takes in a new piece of information, the brain classifies and interprets that information according to what it has experienced like it before. When a team needs to find new, innovative ways to solve a problem, it is time to break out of this limiting mode of thinking. It is time to use stimuli that allow team members to see the original problem in a fresh way. A stimulus is not an idea itself. It is a tool that provides fresh context and perspective. Effective stimuli allow people to jump out of one river of thinking into another – and from this new river, creative people can get insights and make new connections back to the first river.

Two river-jumping ways to generate innovative ideas for process improvement and design projects areapplying one or more of four techniques to break out of conventional thinking, and getting familiar with the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ).

Four Rs for River-Jumping

It is often assumed that creativity is a spontaneous activity. The truth is that creative people use proven tools and techniques to push their thinking. Far from being spontaneous, they plan creative sessions in advance. Each of four Rs can be used to make a brainstorming session on innovative ideas or solutions more effective. They are particularly helpful when a project team’s source of ideas has dried up or the output is pretty much what members already have known.

First R: Re-express from Someone Else’s Perspective

Re-expression means approaching the problem from an entirely different viewpoint – say, with the mentality of a five-year-old or of an alien from another planet. With this technique, team members drop all pre-conceived notions, experience and knowledge about the problem and simply ask: “What would I expect of a new mobile phone?” or “How would I overcome long waiting hours at the medical clinic on Monday mornings?” It might take the team some time to warm up to this approach, but wait and see. By allowing everybody to say “stupid” things, a project leader may start some great solution generation. As Albert Einstein said, “If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

Second R: Related Worlds

Never assume that no one has ever faced an issue like the one the team is facing now. And never assume there is nothing valuable to learn from the immediate world. “Related worlds” is a technique that enables the team to make the experiences of others useful in the context of its search for a creative solution. To harness related worlds, the project leader should encourage every member of the team to go out and see what can be learned from others. The creative act occurs when someone applies what they discover to the team’s own challenge, but in a unique way.

Roll-on deodorant illustrates this technique. The related world was the ballpoint pen. Inventors of the roll-on deodorant “discovered” the similarity between two situations where a liquid had to be spread equally thin across a surface.

Related worlds is a great technique for demystifying the creative process. All one has to do is ask, “Where in the world has my challenge been faced before?” and “What can I learn and steal from that?” Yes, steal. “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation,” according to Voltaire.

Third R: Revolution

Revolution is creativity at its most provocative. Revolution is a deliberate challenge of existing rules and assumptions. Some of the great creative leaps of our time – “What if we could fly?” – have come from revolution. To use this technique, start by writing down all the “rules.” What is the shape, use, feel, touch, application, process, etc.? Somebody, somewhere started with the rule that “Human beings cannot fly.” And then other people – among them, Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright brothers – imagined breaking that rule.

Rules Are Made to Be Broken
Rule Rule Breaker
Shampoo is a liquid. Shampoo is a solid, a mousse, a milk.
Shampoo comes in plastic bottles. Shampoo comes in a beautiful glass bottle, a fabric container.
Shampoo is used with water. Shampoo is used with a hairdryer, a gas, a comb.

Take, for example, shampoo: As illustrated in the table, once the rules are written down, the team can start to play around with them: Try exaggerating, opposing, reducing and reversing as many of the assumptions as possible.

When consumers complained that Heinz super-thick tomato ketchup was difficult to pour, company leadership took a revolutionary stance by asking, “What if we did nothing?” Rather than getting worried about the complaints, Heinz simply turned this feature into a benefit. The resulting advertising campaign sent a clear message: If it comes out of the bottle too easily, then it must be low-quality ketchup.

“Rules are for people who aren’t willing to invent their own.” Good advice from Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier.

Fourth R: Random Links

Though no more effective than the other techniques, random links may feel like the most creative one. It is the simple art of selecting a random piece of stimulus that has nothing to do with the creative challenge and then deliberately forcing a connection.

This technique was used in a brainstorming session some years ago with engineers in the mobile phone industry. Participants collected ideas on new features, wrote them on cards and put them on a pin wall. After some time the team realized it was stuck. To get ideas flowing again, the session facilitators put the pin wall out of sight, set up another one and asked the team to brainstorm ideas on an advertisement randomly chosen from a magazine.

The brainstorming produced words like “friendship,” “eternity,” “sundowner” and “vacation.” After a couple of minutes, the facilitators stopped this process, brought back the first pin wall and asked the team to make a connection between the ideas on the advertisement regarding the original topic – new features for mobile phones. Some of the “crazy” ideas that appeared on the pin wall in that session became reality – e.g., filters that allow only the most important people to get through to you, so the sundowner will not be spoiled by your boss/spouse.

The four techniques described can help overcome the brain’s automatic and subconscious classification system. Edward de Bono – one of the gurus of creativity – speaks of this as lateral thinking, thinking in an unorthodox way. Another approach offering a stimulus to find new ranges of solutions/ideas for problems – design problems in particular – is TRIZ.

River-Jumping with TRIZ

TRIZwas developed by Genrich Altshuller, a patent expert for the Soviet Navy during the 1940s. He and his colleagues initially screened about 400,000 patents looking at how innovative ideas solved problems. The result was the conclusion that there are a finite number of potential problems and solutions in the universe. Altshuller said invention is a solution resolving a major design conflict. Then he proposed that there are 39 parameters for defining a problem and 40 innovative principles for solving a problem.

When a new process or product is being designed, there are manyrequirements that the process/product has to satisfy. And some of them will be in mutual conflict. Is this bad news? No, not if the designers are striving to be inventive – because if there is no conflict, then as Altshuller stated, there is no real invention.

Those prior solutions can help with a new problem by following this simple process:

  1. Particular problem:Define the contradiction/conflict in terms of the feature to be improved and the undesired result.
  2. Generalized problem:Generalize the feature to be improved and the undesired result using the 39 parameters.
  3. Generalized solution:For the selected pair of parameters, look up generalized solutions in the list of 40 inventive principles in the TRIZ matrix of contradictions.
  4. Particular solution:Use the generalized solutions to help find a particular solution by using creativity tools. To do this, team members could look at one of the 40 principles that it found as a general solution, then use creativity techniques – like revolutionary thinking or looking at related worlds – to make the general solution work in their specific industry.

If project leaders want to use the TRIZ method, it is good to have a TRIZ expert available to help use the parameters, which are quite abstract, to define the generalized problem and to move more quickly from the generalized solution to a specific one. In fact, if the culture is at the beginning of its journey to innovation, a skilled facilitator can be helpful in any creativity session.

Conclusion: Following Other River-Jumpers

By river-jumping with the four Rs or TRIZ, project leaders will be taking advantage of what worked in the past and using those principles to lead their teams – and their company – toward creative thinking.

About the Author:

Detlev Ponnwitz is a senior associate at Valeocon Management Consulting. He is a pioneer in the integration of change leadership and team facilitation with statistical problem-solving approaches such as Six Sigma. He is a lead consultant who teaches project leaders the process improvement, people and management skills they need to bring improvement projects to successful completion. A certified behavioral trainer and business coach, Mr. Ponnwitz has trained more than 200 Green and Black Belts at both manufacturing and service firms in the application of Six Sigma tools and techniques. Contact Detlev Ponnwitz at detlev.ponnwitz (at) or visit