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| On 21, Aug 1998

James Kowalick, TRIZ Master
Renaissance Leadership Institute
(530) 692-1944 ~ E-Mail:

DEFINITION OF PSYCHOLOGICAL INERTIA. The psychological meaning of the word “inertia” implies an indisposition to change – a certain “stuckness” due to human programming. It represents the inevitability of behaving in a certain way – the way that has been indelibly inscribed somewhere in the brain. It also represents the impossibility – as long as a person is guided by his habits – of ever behaving in a better way.

Psychological Inertia (PI) represents the many barriers to personal creativity and problem-solving ability, barriers that have as their roots “the way that I am used to doing it.” In solving a problem, it is the inner, automatic voice of PI whispering “You are not allowed to do that!” Or, “Tradition demands that it be done this way!” Or even, “You have been given the information, and the information is true.”

PSYCHOLOGICAL INERTIA AND THE PRACTICE OF TRIZ. PI is also what causes the followers of a given approach to not deviate from that approach. For example, practicing “TRIZniks” are prone to becoming stuck in TRIZ procedures that have been practiced and passed along over the years and decades – forgetting that the goal is not necessarily to “follow the rules,” but rather to achieve excellent results. One result of this is the call for “standardization” in the way that procedures are followed. This makes a given practice or approach “safe” but not better, and acts as a damper to further development.

In science, it is PI that retards the rate of progress of science. That which is new is rarely accepted by the status quo – even if it is far better. The “guardians of the status quo” unknowingly become the barriers.

ILLUSTRATING DIFFERENT FORMS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL INERTIA. Psychological Inertia takes on different forms, many of which are quite invisible to personal observation. Different forms of PI, although they are quite subtle during problem-solving, can be recognized in, and exemplified by, simple problems and “brain-teasers.” The following simple problems, puzzles and brain-teasers each illustrates a different form of psychological inertia.

  1. The Retarding Power (or Inertia) of a Word: CARRYING STRINGS ON A SHOPPING BAG. For years shopping bags used to have strings attached for carrying purposes. When the bag contents reached a certain weight, the strings caused damage to the carrier’s fingers. The word “strings” implied that all shopping bags must have strings (the idea of using strings was attractive from a cost point of view), and served as a form of psychological inertia to prevent progress in designing a “shopping bag system” that did not have this problem. An entire family of new shopping bags – based on the inventive principles of “Segmentation” and “Merging” – ultimately emerged. One is tape-like: “many strings (lines) that form a surface.” Another is a fluid-filled (from one line, to many molecular fluid particles) carrier that, like the tape solution, also distributed stresses over a broader area. Words themselves (like “strings”) are often enough to halt progress in a given technology for decades, because “this is the way it has always been understood.”
  2. A Partial Restriction Becomes a Blanket Restriction: There are two groups of people. Each member of group # 1 weighs exactly 150. Each member of group two weighs exactly 200. Three people selected from these two groups have a total weight of 550 – but one of these persons cannot be from group #1! How many people are selected from each group ? It is left to the reader to answer this question; if you cannot, then you may be operating under one of the laws of psychological inertia.
  3. Tradition Cannot be Broken: The managers in a certain company were unaware of what was going on in manufacturing, and the President didn’t like it. The company’s managers had a history of being “stand-offish” – looking down upon those employees who were not managers. The President wanted to change this situation as soon as possible, but unfortunately, remaining behind the “sacred” doors of one’s managerial office had become quite a “tradition.” What the President did was to initiate a weekly exchange at his staff meetings: each manager, in turn, had to discuss and present a manufacturing procedure in significant depth, with the other managers being encouraged to ask penetrating questions. In no time at all, the managers were spending time in the manufacturing area. The general solution to problems like this (i.e., changing tradition or changing the culture) is: “Create a situation where the individuals involved in the change strongly want to change.” Such cultural and traditional barriers are one form of psychological inertia, because they represent cultural and “traditional” programming.
  4. Words and Their Assumed Properties or Characteristics: How can a pipe fit through a square hole (the area of the pipe and the whole are just about equivalent, with the square hole only having slightly less cross-sectional area)? Many persons will think of “pipes” as being “round.” But a pipe need not be round – it could be square. This is yet another form of psychological inertia.
  5. Inadmissible Range of Data: Scientists were conducting a test. They had one end of a rope attached to a frying pan, and the other end of the rope to the pulling-harness of a dog. At what speed should the dog run so that the frying pan won’t rattle? Some problem-solvers are “stuck” in the psychological inertia of inadmissible data points. The problem as stated may imply to them that the dog must be moving, when in fact this is not a constraint. The answer: zero.
  6. Association of Objects with Senses: Three light bulbs in a room are operated by three respective switches outside of the room – at a point inaccessible by sight to the room. The initial condition is that no lights are on. How is it possible to know which switch is for which light – if, from the site of the switches outside the room, only one trip to check on the status of the lights is allowed? HINT: use more than one of your senses (the sense of sight is usually connected with a light bulb). The form of psychological inertia illustrated in this problem relates to “associations.” It is often the case that a particular object is related to a particular sensation or function in one’s mind – without opening up the possibility that other relationships are also possible. Overcoming this barrier leads to higher creativity.
  7. All Information Given is Valid: Three worms are crawling along a perfectly straight line, in the same direction, and at the same continuous speed. The first worm says “I am (lead) worm number one, and there are two worms crawling behind me.” The second worm says “I am worm number two, and there is a worm crawling in front of me and a worm crawling behind me.” The third worm says “I am worm number three, and there are two worms crawling in front of me, and two worms crawling behind me.” How can this be? (Hint: is all the information valid?). Wrong information is often a powerful barrier to solving problems. Some problem-solvers believe everything that is presented. The answer here is simple: “The third worm is lying!”

Although there are many other examples of various forms of psychological inertia, these seven are adequate to illustrate what PI is. In actual technical problems that engineers and scientists work on daily, these and other PI forms are very difficult to observe – because they are a strong part of personal programming, which emerges subconciously, PI is most often quite invisible. It can only be “seen” through a prolonged, intentional effort. The result of psychological inertia is an inferior product or process design, or an inferior solution to a problem.

HOW PSYCHOLOGICAL INERTIA CAN BE AVOIDED, REDUCED OR ELIMINATED. Fortunately there are exercises and techniques for methodically eliminating or reducing (or avoiding) the effects that PI has on one’s personal creativity. Some of these are a regular part of TRIZ procedures (Ideal Final Result; Physical Contradictions Statement; Functional Goal Setting; etc.).

Other approaches take the form of special psychological “anti-PI” exercises. For example, the author teaches exercises to engineers and scientists that force them to be “out of pattern.” Such exercises are geared to break the inertia that would take them down a habitual problem-solving path. These exercises have been demonstrated and verified (but not published) by the author over the past twenty years.

These anti-PI exercises may appear, on the surface, to be quite simple. In fact, however, they are extremely difficult. Readers may want to attempt one very specific exercise that has worked well for the author, who uses this exercise with professionals in American corporations: “For ten days, while speaking, avoid using the word ‘the.’ “

Initially this exercise is virtually impossible for anyone who seriously wants to use it to “break out of the PI box.” This is because (as explained in the author’s previous TRIZ Journal articles on human functions) human functions involving movements occur at speeds that are far more rapid than intellectual (thinking) functions. What happens is that the word “the” comes out of the mouth before the speaker can think about it. Seriously following this exercise, however, will result in more control of that part of the mind responsible for higher-level thinking! Another way of saying this is that the practitioner begins to break through the prison walls of ordinary thinking. Exercises like these become even more powerful when several members of a technical staff are practicing them at once – they can kindly remind each other of the exercise when the other person speaks the inadmissable word. Such an effort raises the creative level of the professional team.

This exercise is only one of the powerful anti-PI exercises used by the author.

Although the practice of TRIZ, with its various tools and procedures, increases a person’s creative capacity, it is also necessary to raise one’s level of creative thinking (something that TRIZ, for the most part, does not do!). This is the very area that Altshuller, the father of TRIZ, rejected in his early search for a process of creativity. In essence, this area relates to the quest for achieving “creative enlightenment” all the time. It is indeed possible to raise one’s level of personal creativity (as opposed to merely increasing one’s creative capacity at the same level) through certain regular practices that the author has verified many times. Such exercises* have never been a part of the TRIZ approach, and represent “beyond TRIZ.”

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. The author thanks those whose research into “going beyond TRIZ” have contributed to this article – particularly to the researchers at the Leonardo da Vinci Institute (a division of the Renaissance Leadership Institute), who have been developing world-class creative and problem-solving algorithms and course materials now being routinely applied by the technical staffs of major corporations.

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*NOTE: These creative exercises are not to be confused with various types of brainstorming, the use of analogy, the use of sympathy, etc., as offered by such groups as Synectics and through the DeBono’s approaches – which, although they are effective, produce lesser results.