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Why Study Tradeoffs? Creativity, Business, Science and Expertise

Why Study Tradeoffs? Creativity, Business, Science and Expertise

| On 29, Aug 2002

Why Study Tradeoffs?

Creativity, Business, Science and Expertise

By Kalevi Rantanen
Brahenk. 9 E 18
phone/fax +358 2 251 1623

This paper is a tutorial clarifying why one should seek tradeoffs or contradictions. Two different approaches to creativity and their relations to business are considered. Examples illustrating the overall importance of the concepts of contradictions, tradeoffs and conflicts are presented. The study of tradeoffs will be connected with the three views on expertise, proposed by cognitive scientists Bereiter and Scardamalia.

1 Do we Need to Write Down the Tradeoff?

To invent and innovate means to improve technologies or other systems. Systems that need to be improved contain tradeoffs. Cambridge International Dictionary of English explains the word “trade-off” as follows:

“a balancing of two opposing situations or qualities, both of which are desired.

There is a trade-off between doing the job accurately and doing it quickly.

She said that she’d had to make a trade-off between her job and her family.

A trade-off is also something that you do not really want but that you accept in order to have something else that you do want.

For some car buyers, lack of space is an acceptable trade-off for a sporty design.”

In a new book Simplified TRIZ[11] the word “tradeoff” is used instead of the term “technical contradiction” that is found in older books on TRIZ. The book, however, claims no priority to this selection of the term. Bur�nius and Jansson report in their review of acquiring TRIZ: “A ‘contradiction’ in the normal TRIZ jargon is for example at Motorola called ‘a trade-off'” [2, p. 28]

Why a “new” word? The main reason is that the lay term “tradeoff” expresses most clearly the initial situation in the development work. I want some quality, but if I get it conventional way, something else becomes worse. The situation is an unsatisfactory compromise.

Many words are used to name some kind of opposing things: contradiction, tradeoff, conflict, paradox, double-bind, dilemma, �Catch-22�1) and others.

The selection of the word, however, is not very big problem. What matters that we need to clarify the problem before generating solutions.

This is often a bottle-neck. Records of training courses show that people who begin to study the methodology of creativity often try to ignore tradeoffs.

Veli-Pekka Lifl�nder, principal lecturer in media technology from Espoo-Vantaa Institute of Technology, Finland, has conducted TRIZ courses via the computer network, according to the concept of collaborative project learning. About network learning in the context of TRIZ, see a short information in a paper by Rantanen [10] . For detailed information about this exciting mode of learning, see Lifl�nder’s papers [7, 8] .

One of benefits of the collaborative learning in the web is that records can be easily stored and analyzed. Participants, who have been both students and people already working in industry, make notes and often also drawings. Examining this material one can get information about how people really think.

In exercises and projects participants were asked to describe the tool and the object and then define tradeoffs. At first, despite the explanation of the importance of this step, novices often make two kinds of mistakes:

Instead of tradeoff, the problem solver names only the drawback.

Instead of tradeoff, he/she names a desired result.

Records give the impression that a person tries to run through the first steps as quickly as possible, not thinking of formulations. It seems that people consider these formulations as useless playing with words.

Actually, why should someone seek tradeoffs? Perhaps there is no reason to spend time for finding them? We will consider the question “why” from the points of view of business, science and psychology.

Necessary background information about the concept of tradeoff, and examples of tradeoffs, can be found from many sources, for example from Simplified TRIZ[11] , from Ellen Domb’s tutorial in The TRIZ Journal [5] , and from many case studies, for example Darrel Mann’s paper on bridge design [9] .

2 Tradeoffs and Business

If the problem is really solved, the ideality of the system will increase. That means that tradeoffs will be resolved some way, some time.

If you have written down the formulation of a tradeoff, you know three things:

  1. The tradeoff is a real problem.
  2. The problem is worth solving..
  3. The problem can be solved.

Transportation is a perfect example. The car is the trade-off between well-known pluses and minuses:

  • Individuality
  • Traffic congestion, noise and pollution

If we see the tradeoff, we see the real problem. There have been many attempts to see the drawbacks of the situation as a problem. The result has been unsuccessful attempts to make auto-free zones or constrain vehicle use other ways.

The trade-off between individuality and negative side-effects is certainly a problem worth solving. Since the ideality of all systems will increase, we can be sure, that this tradeoff can be solved, even if we cannot say exactly, how.

Why, then, do people often dislike to pronounce and write down tradeoffs? One cause is the unconscious influence of old ideas of creativity.

There are two views on creativity:

  1. Creativity is an ability to make useful, economically viable and morally sustainable improvements.
  2. Creativity is an ability to generate as many ideas as possible, as quickly as possible, no matter whether they are feasible and viable or not.

If we want improvements, we need to clarify tradeoffs. If we want only to generate many ideas, there is no reason to work with tradeoffs.

The word “creativity” has been so far most often connected with idea generation, isolated from any economical or social objectives. The old model continues to influence to thinking, although the pronounced goal may be to improve technology or business.

That’s why it is useful to give a question: What do we want to do, improve things? or only generate ideas?


  1. Recall discussions and writings on creativity. How do people usually understand the word “creativity?”
  2. How you would like to define creativity? Write down your definition and then explain why you have made just this definition.

3 There are Tradeoffs in All Industries and Sciences

One distinguishing mark of the sound theory is that the same concepts are used and the same claims are proved independently in fields far from each other.

John Gottman is a psychologist, famous for his study of marriage. He claims that he can predict with more than 90 percent accuracy, which marriages will be successful and which are likely to end. What is a secret of a good marriage? What do you think? According to an article in Newsweek, Gottman’s conclusions are unexpected: “… anger is not the most destructive emotion in a marriage, since both happy and miserable couples fight… Happily married couples have a … different way of relating to each other during disputes… Happy spouses deal with these issues in a way that strengthens the marriage.” [12]

Simplified TRIZ contains short examples of conflicts in business and art. Peters and Waterman write that the most important the excellent companies can do is to manage paradox. Screenplay writers consider the conflict as an absolutely necessary prerequisite for any story.

How about education, training and instruction? In his book Training for ChangeYrj� Engestr�m describes a cognitive conflict as an essential motivating force in training: “A substantial motivation arises when the student experiences and recognizes a conflict between his or her knowledge or skill, and the requirements of the new task he or she is facing.” [6, p. 22] Engestr�m also writes that the conflict should not be avoided. “To avoid conflict is in fact to underestimate students…. On the contrary, if such a conflict is appropriately calibrated and touches essential questions of the student’s work, he or she takes it as a challenge.” [6, p. 21]

The list of examples could be easily continued. It seems that everywhere where you need to develop something, or explain the change, concepts like tradeoff, conflict of paradox pop up as useful tools for thinking.


  1. Seek more examples of how the concepts of contradiction are fruitfully used in different industries and sciences.
  2. What are the limits of the concept of the tradeoff? Should we seek tradeoffs every time we have a problem? If not, when we should seek tradeoffs, when not?”

4 Three Levels of Expertise

There is also an emotional obstacle. Tradeoffs contain drawbacks and contradictions, that is, things with a negative tone.

That’s why we often unconsciously avoid problems. How to overcome this obstacle? How to learn to like problems? One way is to consider how the expertise is evolving.

Canadian cognitive scientists Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia speak of three views and levels of expertise:

  1. Expertise as Knowledge. An expert has memorized lot of material.
  2. Expertise as Intuition. An experienced expert solves problems with hardly any effort.
  3. Expertise as Progressive Problem Solving. An expert seeks new problems and challenges.

While the two first levels of expertise are widely known and accepted, the level of progressive problem solving needs to be explained.

An intuitive problem solver may prefer previously learned routines. A progressive problem solver seeks challenges and goes beyond knowledge and intuition.

An expert limited to knowledge and intuition may avoid new, non-routine problems. A progressive problem solver likes them.

Perhaps it is useful to note that all three kinds of expertise are necessary. The is no intuition without knowledge. Without effective routines one cannot find time and energy to spend on important things. The point is that intuition is not enough.

It is easy to see, that progressive problem solving requires the implementation of tools like TRIZ. The successful implementation of TRIZ, from another side, requires that the organization is developing the high level expertise.

Altshuller wrote in 1980s: “… special groups have appeared to solve problems by implementing… TRIZ… these groups will be common… Probably, the experts in TRIZ will be called Engineer-Inventor, or Technical Systems Development Engineer.” [1, p. 79] . Maybe he thought of something like experts on the third level.

One thing is sure. Groups of developers are emerging, and meet the necessity to work on tradeoffs.

Ian F Mitchell and others from The Ilford Imaging TRIZ Group write in recent discussion in The TRIZ Journal: “Contradictions are easy to talk about but it takes practice to route them out of every day problems.” [4] To practice with pleasure one needs to be the progressive problem solver.


  1. What kinds of expertise you can find in your organization?
  2. How the expertise in your organization is evolving? How it should be developed?

5 Conclusions

There are three reasons to study tradeoffs:

  1. If creativity is considered as an ability to improve technology, business and other systems, clarifying tradeoffs become important.
  2. Research in diverse fields of industry, science, art and education has shown that it is essential to understand conflicts.
  3. Progressive problem solving, that becomes a necessary part of expertise, requires the analysis of contradictions and tradeoffs.


1) The expression “Catch-22” was coined by Joseph Heller (1923-1999) in his novel of that name. It was also made into the movie. By Heller’s explanation Catch 22 “specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind”. In the novel an airman was crazy and could be grounded. But if he did ask, he was deemed sane and had to fly more missions. He is crazy if he flies, and sane if he doesn’t – but if he is sane, he has to fly.
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