I have recently been involved in a couple of sessions where we have combined TRIZ with Cognitive Edge. These came about separately and in both cases I could see that using some of the techniques found in Cognitive Edge would add something to the TRIZ approach. I heard about cognitive edge through my colleague Ron Donaldson, who has been part of the Oxford Creativity team for a few years now. Ron teaches facilitation and conducts workshops using Cognitive Edge, and in our downtime before and between workshops we had discussed it, and I had found the idea of taking different types of approaches dependent on what kind of problem you have fascinating.
In particular, I could see that the Cynefin framework made explicit, and built on, the TRIZ approach to problems.
The Cynefin framework describes how some kind of problems are simple: like fixing a puncture on your bike. You know how to do it, and can do it yourself. Some are complicated: like building a ship. You probably can’t do it yourself, and might not have all the knowledge, but it exists out there in the world and if you put together a project you can pull together the right knowledge and be confident you will end up with a ship that floats. Some problems are complex: like predicting the outcome of a general election. It is impossible to predict with confidence what will happen before it does, but once the results are in you can look back and identify the key events that led to the result. Some are chaos: like riots. You can’t predict what happens and even looking back it’s hard to see why things happened.
My first thought on being exposed to this was that TRIZ does is takes complicated situations and breaks them into simple parts. Sometimes problems seem scarily big and hard: with TRIZ we try to break them down into smaller, more manageable chunks and solve each problem one by one. For example, when looking at contradictions, we look at pairs at a time. When we’re trimming a function analysis, we work through the trimming steps one by one, one component at a time. This makes even the complicated situations easier to deal with – we’re not trying to climb a mountain in a single leap, but just make it to the next crest.
I thought at first that TRIZ also helps make complex situations complicated, by providing us with a clear set of steps to follow. Regularly when you’re problem solving with TRIZ you stop and reassess: am I going in the right direction? by defining our ideal outcome we have a general direction and then triz provides us with a number of “problem solving maps” to help us get there. Hwoever now I’m not so sure. It is hard to define your ideal outcome when you don’t know where you want to end up: you might not have a clear idea of what’s going on around you, or how you ended up where you are. At this point, I think the Cynefin framework helps.
What we found in the two sessions we ran is that when there was quite a lot of uncertainty that it helped to separate out problems according to whether they were complex, complicated or simple. In one session the client was confused because some of their tasks were complicated and some complex, and they didn’t know what approach to take: should they plan a project or should they explore? This uncertainty made it hard for them to see a way forward, as they made the assumption that they should be choosing one approach for all their tasks: separating out which could be planned and which needed some experimentation helped them keep complexity in its place and break down their tasks into more manageable chunks.
Future backwards is a tool from cognitive edge which also has a really good fit with TRIZ. When we’re doing TRIZ problem solving sessions we usually start by asking people to describe the problem: where are we now? How did we get here? We then often start by asking them to define their ideal outcome: what would their perfect outcome look like? This sets the direction for our problem solving by quickly and accurately defining what we want.
However future backwards extends this further by asking everyone to describe their present situation, then, working backwards in time, outline the steps and decisions which brought them to this place. This is useful as we often generate stories and explanations which only include some of the relevant information. By working on this as a group more relevant information is uncovered, and we see new links between events and decisions and gain a new understanding of where we are, and how we got there. The next step is to identify a future hell: if everything that went wrong did go wrong, what would the future look like? This is usually quite funny and cathartic: next we work out what would need to happen to make this situation real. This gives us a problem list (which we can tackle with TRIZ!). When we identify a future heaven: if everything that went right, did go right, what would the future look like? This is exactly the same as the ideal outcome, only not explicitly stated as benefits. People often suggest ideas and describe perfect solutions or functions rather than benefits, but it can be used as a starting point for the ideal outcome. We then then map out all the things that need to happen to get there: this gives us ideas of how we can plan to get to where we want to be.
The heaven/hell thing is very TRIZzy in approach: sometimes in TRIZ sessions we do an “idiot” outcome as well as an ideal, as sometimes it is easier to talk about what we don’t want, than what we do. Even the fact that it is taking two extreme approaches is very TRIzzy: a lot of the fundamental TRIZ approach is about stretching our thinking as this gives us a new perspective on our situation and can help us see things more clearly. However I like the fact that what cognitive edge adds in is an aspect of storytelling which helps people make sense of their situation, and gives them confidence to move forward. It is also useful for teamwork: Ron and I did a future backwards with two very different groups (who were usually in conflict when making decisions) and when the groups described their future heaven and hell to each other you could see the surprise on their faces: “these guys want the same thing as me! They worry about the same things as me!” Both groups had the same starting point and very similar heavens and hells: and the fact this was written down explicitly before the feedback really cemented the teamwork
I’ve talked enough and I think I am only just starting to think about the synergies between cognitive edge and TRIZ, so I welcome thoughts and comments on this. Of course, I would expect there to be overlaps, as one of the things TRIZ teaches us is that there is nothing new, on a conceptual level. TRIZ also tells me that it is easy to get psychological inertia without realising it, and I certainly have a bias towards treating problems as complicated rather than complex. I wonder if many engineers do the same, and perhaps we just need to be aware of this in order to solve problems in the most inventive way.