How Innovation is Like Foraging for Blackberries

I have just spent a lovely lunch hour foraging for blackberries in the hedgerows near our office. I gave foraging for blackberries a go for the first time yesterday, without much success – discussing it with my father, he suggested a place nearby which he saw bushes laden with fruit. As I was picking the blackberries today, it occurred to me what a good metaphor for innovation the whole experience was.

Look In the Right Place

You will get a lot more benefit, in a lot less time, by putting your effort into the right place. And someone else might know a good place to start looking.

Harvest At the Right Time

If you try and harvest too soon, it will be a lot of effort for not much benefit. If you harvest too late, it won’t last very long, and it might just make a big mess.


Accept There Will Be Problems

There will be downsides. You will get stung and needled. You will get your hands dirty. Try and minimise the downsides – but don’t let the worry about them stop you from trying.

Dirty Hands

Downsides Aren’t Always Immediately Apparent

I was stung on my arms by some pretty horrible nettles yesterday which still burn.

Learn From Experience

I avoided nettles at all cost today.

Effort Brings Engagement

You can buy rather than harvest, but you care less about the product.

Understand the Context

Engaging with the environment brings understanding of the context, the lifecycle, and helps you plan for the future (I will be back for currently unripe fruit in a few days).


There’s enough for everyone, if you just take what you need.


Protect Your Investment

I didn’t put a lid on my meagre spoils yesterday and spilled them all over my car seat.

…and finally…

Avoid Low-Hanging Fruit!


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Acoustical Properties of Facilitation

My colleague Ron and I finished a brilliant workshop recently, teaching Facilitating TRIZ. This workshop is intended to give people trained in TRIZ the ability to practice leading others in the use of TRIZ tools in short exercises – we wrote the workshop as many of our clients go back into the workplace wanting to do TRIZ with colleagues who haven’t been trained, yet have never had the experience of facilitating anyone. We give people the opportunity to practice facilitating exercises in a “safe to fail” environment, and are given feedback from the ever wonderful and supportive Ron on how they can improve for next time.


At the end, we talk through general issues, and Ron gave a lovely example of what facilitation is all about. When we run workshops in Oxford, we take people on a short walking tour around some of the lovelier sites in the city. This has rather evolved by accident, as we always go to dinner with clients, but more and more of them are international and have never been to Oxford before. So on the Thursday night of our week-long TRIZ workshops, we tend to have a wander around the city centre, showing people pretty buildings and I dredge up half-remembered facts from my long-term memory (I grew up in Oxford) about the sites we’re seeing. Ron always teases me that about almost every building we see I talk about its acoustic properties – this is because one of the few things I really know is that I have sung in quite a lot of them – e.g. the Holywell Music Room, the Sheldonian Theatre, the Ashmolean Museum, Christ Church Cathedral – and they all have very different acoustics. In order to get the best sound, you often have to adjust how you perform to fit the acoustics.

Holywell Music Room

Holywell Music Room

Sheldonian Theatre

Sheldonian Theatre

Ashmolean Museum (with me singing!)

Ashmolean Museum (with me singing!)

Ron said very wisely that an important part of facilitation is understanding the acoustical properties of the room you’re in: i.e. what is the general context? What is the mood? It is one thing to learn to sing on your own; another to sing to an audience; yet another to sing in a cathedral. As a facilitator, you have to gain familiarity with the methods you will be using; you have to be able to enable others to use them properly, and you also have to be able to understand the wider context of what you are doing, and its impact.

It reminded me of a session I attended recently. It was an urgent problem – we had been called over to Germany at 3 days notice to help the team come up with a solution. It was important – if we didn’t fix the problem, our client could lose one of their most important clients. It was time pressured – we had a single day. The head of the whole product line (a REALLY big cheese) was there at the beginning to stress this to us and asked if he could introduce the session and give the history of the problem to everyone. “Terrific!” I thought. “Support from senior management for the team, how wonderful!”. Then he began. “This is a very important problem. If we don’t fix this, we are going to lose a major customer. We only have a day, yet we have been working on this for months. It is an incredibly difficult and complex problem – and we need a solution by 4pm” [it was 8.30am]. He went on this vein for about 10 minutes, during which I saw the engineers in the room slip further and further down into their seats and grow ashen-faced. He handed over to us to start, and left the room.

It was my task to introduce the session and I considered the slides I’d prepared, which are fairly typical for this sort of workshop: a short introduction to TRIZ, and the approaches we would be using, designed to get people feeling bouncy and energetic. I looked at the engineers, who were looking frozen with anxiety, and realised I was going to have to do something new. “TRIZ is a proven and reliable method for solving problems. When we use TRIZ, we can be confident we will come up with clever solutions – every time. TRIZ never fails as it is built from engineering success” I start, and continue, in my most soothing voice, the one I usually use for calming my 3 and 4 year-old nieces and nephews when they’re feeling distressed. It worked…and once everyone had calmed down a bit, we were able to get them working well on understanding and solving the problem.  By lunchtime we had completed a couple of function analyses of the situation, which had unlocked their understanding, and generated some really novel new lines of thinking, and everyone started having fun and coming up with clever ideas.

By the end of the day we had about 120 solutions – which were grouped into 12 classes of concepts – of which 6 classes were regarded as being both high quality and practical to implement quickly. Everyone was incredibly pleased [I asked the chief engineer at lunch time how he felt it was going. “I am not happy!” he said “I should have done this 6 months ago!”], and it just goes to show what Ron and I always finish a Facilitating TRIZ workshop saying…you just have to “trust the TRIZ”…

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The Inventive Gondola

On a recent trip to Venice I learnt a little about the design of the gondola and was delighted to discover that it displays a number of TRIZ inventive principles.


The hull of the gondola is asymmetric (Inventive Principle #4) in order to counteract the asymmetric force of the single oar (the rèmo). Further asymmetry in the hull shape ensures that the gondola floats upright even though the gondolier stands on one side of the vessel – indeed, with nobody aboard a gondola takes on a distinct list to starboard – an example of prior counter-action (Inventive Principle #9).

gondola 2

Similarly the weight of the distinctive metal fèrro at the bow helps to counteract the weight of the gondolier at the stern – an example of both prior counteraction and also equipotentiality (Inventive Principle #12).
I was also intrigued by the complex shape of the gondola’s rowlock (the fórcola) which provides for as many as eight different rowing positions for the oar – a form of universality (Inventive Principle #6).

So, should you ever find yourself taking a romatic gondola ride along the canals of Venice, don’t forget your Inventive Principles!

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Never be stumped for resources

The use of resources is an important theme in Triz. It’s useful to develop a habit (perhaps an obsession) of always looking to use existing and/or available resources to solve a problem rather than introducing anything new.
One definition of a resource that I’m fond of is:

“A resource is anything that is not being used to its full potential”

What’s nice about this is that encourages us to look at what’s around us (or in the systems we develop) and consider what additional useful functions could be provided by the resources be find.
Here’s a nice example I spotted a few years ago at the Hunters boat yard at Ludham on the Norfolk broads:

bench using stump

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Being there and not being there

One of the moist brutal – and therefore most helpful – physical contradictions we can tackle is one of existence and non-existence. We often find (having vigorously waved the magic wand of ideal outcome) that what we really, really want is for some particular object, thing, component or other thingamabob to be there and not be there. TRIZ will lead us to consider the use of separation principles to solve such a contradiction. In this case a useful trick (which is very much linked to inventive principle #6:  Universality) is to consider a system component that delivers different functions at different times, especially when we have identified a pair of there-and-not-there contradictions. Although, strictly speaking, the component still exists at all times, from a functional perspective it has ‘disappeared’ and been replaced by something functionally different – and ideally useful in its new functional guise.

A folding penknife is an example of this:


  • the handle of the knife should be there (when we are cutting things) and not there (when we are not cutting things
  • the blade cover should be there (when we are not cutting things) and not there (when we are cutting things

The two contradictions are resolved by combing the required functions into a single component that only delivers one of the two functions at a time.

But what about situations in which we cannot separate in time? There is a useful line of attack when we are dealing with systems that interact with people. The human sensing system is complex (especially when we include the processing going on in the brain) and has behaviours and characteristics that can be exploited to resolve physical contradictions. Here is one of my favourite examples:

This stamp is one of set that celebrates a number of British aircraft designers. The Supermarine Spitfire, the most famous creation of its designer Ronald Mitchell,  dominates the image. And yet Mitchell himself is also there – and not there. The stamp itself does not change, but our perception of it can. It’s (almost but not quite) enough to turn me into a stamp collector.

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Beyond Brainstorming: Encouraging Team Innovation

I just had an interesting conversation with a client: he asked me how you get a team to move beyond brainstorming. Oxford Creativity have a rule in our innovation sessions, that we always create a “Solution Park” in which we put ideas as they come up, in order to keep people engaged in TRIZ’s systematic approaches.

Brainstorming has its place, and generating solutions is fun, but it has a number of risks.

I’ve thought of an idea!

1) You don’t spend enough time understanding the problem, and you end up solving the “wrong” problem. Probably about 40% of the problems we are brought into solve are not the real problem: they are actually interesting but flawed solutions to a deeper problem. Uncovering and solving that more fundamental problem always generates more robust solutions.

2) You run out of energy. This is why simple tricks or triggers like “imagine how a rose could solve your problem” are often used, but these are random and while they can encourage new ways of thinking, they are not related to your situation. It is a bit like searching for buried treasure and just picking random places to dig. If you spend the time modelling your problem in a TRIZzy way, the solution triggers suggested will suggest the best places to dig, focusing your energy in the right places.

3) You are dependent on the knowledge in the room. Chemists will suggest chemical ideas, biologists biological ideas, mechanical engineers will suggest ideas involving duct tape or hitting it really hard with a hammer (or both). This limits the scope of solutions you can generate.

4) Brainstorming favours certain types of people: not everyone in a team will contribute equally. Some people find it very easy to generate lots of ideas – others don’t. Some people are very comfortable pushing their ideas forward – others aren’t. However if you want to get the most from your team, you need to encourage everyone to participate, and having a big sheet up on the wall and giving everyone post it notes encourages even the quieter people who are often shouted down during brainstorming to participate and share their ideas. And I say this as a noisy, confident person who loves to share her ideas…..(I often feel sorry for the people who have to facilitate me during our facilitation training sessions)…

5) You can be under the tyranny of a facilitator. When you have a facilitator at the front of the room in front of a flipchart, I can tell you  exactly how many people in the room are fully engaged, fully participating and enjoying themselves. One. The facilitator. It can be a collosal waste of everyone else’s time and energy. We always split people into groups whenever we can, but even if you have to have someone at the front of the room with a flipchart, everyone else can still be generating solutions and sharing them.

5) ALL ideas are shared. This is important as the best ideas usually come from combining different ideas together. It also stops the most senior person in the room pushing their idea forward, no matter how terrible it is…

Management often push their own solutions

The joy of teams is that different people come up with different ideas, and we want to capture all of them.

I am passionate about getting teams fully engaged and participating in innovation sessions, and using a solution park is an incredibly simple and very powerful way of encourage team innovation. If you want to start a session with brainstorming, by all means do so, but put all the ideas on the solution park, draw a line underneath them, then move on. Apply systematic tools and I guarantee you will generate many more solutions – and demonstrably move beyond brainstorming.

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Learning from my customers: Innovating TRIZ & the 40 Principles

I just had a lovely telephone call with a customer: Kent had attended our public 5 day TRIZ workshop in Oxford in July and I gave him to ring to find out how things were going. He was glad I called as he wanted some help applying the 9 boxes, as he is going to be running some problem solving sessions soon using TRIZ, but found it hard to work out how to apply the 9 boxes sometimes. We talked through the different ways you can apply it, but I mentioned a side benefit of the tool in problem solving sessions as a facilitator.

I find starting a session with a 9 box context map really useful for understanding the problem – you map out the history of the problem, looking at what happened in the past and what will happen in the future if you do nothing. Formally mapping out the context and details of the problem’s history helps me as a facilitator understand where the big issues really lie, and ensures we are looking at the problem at the right level. 

However he then mentioned that he had done some maths on the matrix and the 40 principles! He had done some statistical analysis and found that Inventive Principle no.35, Parameter Change, is the most often used principle. This I knew, but what I didn’t know is the next most commonly used principle. He found the order was this:

35 – Parameter Change


10 – Prior Action

1 – Segmentation

28 – Replace Mechanical System


I thought this was really interesting and I will keep an eye out in future sessions about whether these principles do tend to be suggested more often than others. 

What has been your experience? 

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