What were they thinking, the strategists from Wal-Mart, Intel and British Petroleum when they were putting together their tiny little plan for a new electronic health records system? Or let’s rephrase this: how are innovations created in the first place? A relevant question, especially on the threshold of a new year in which – if we read the ostentatious signs right – innovation tops the agenda of many business strategies again. A good subject to contemplate in this blog a couple of times. So definitely keep watching ‘innovation’ in your personal tag cloud.
One thing is for sure: we all seem in need of rediscovering the ‘how’ of innovation, crushed as we are by years of cost reduction, regulatory compliance and refining the art of spreadsheet management (the latter simply not being cool anymore, even not of being practiced in a collaborative way through hip software-as-a-service or through green, hyper-democratic applications).
On the rebound of such an abundance of structure, you might tend to think that innovation is mainly a matter of chaos and free association. Drive that group of silly, sort of creative people into a workshop room filled with chocolate, furry animals and fatboys. Boot up the water pipe, uncork the red wine, play that CD with singing dolphins and just go with the flow, dude.

Could even work too. It may have happened to our innovative trio of the health records system. Right between two attacks of being completely helpless with laughter somebody shouts ‘of course, we could also hold these records ourselves’. He is already gasping for air again on the ground if he looks up and sees the others plunged in thought. ‘Hold them ourselves! Man, would that be a true innovation’.
Out-of-the-box, changing the script. If you have a closer look, there’s more systematic to it than you would ever expect. Enter Genrich Altshuller. Right after world War II he worked at the patent office of the Russian navy, where he noticed that innovations – no matter how different they are – can be traced back to a convenient number of patterns. By finding the root cause of a problem, earlier innovations and solutions can be identified that at first sight do not seem to be related to the subject, but in fact are based on the same logical patterns. Then, it is just a matter of mapping the patterns to the situation at hand and before you know it, you have come up with a shiny, brand new innovation. Generalise, find matching patterns, translate back: innovation thus becomes a reproducible, systematic process in which you not only rely on your analytical capabilities but also on a well-maintained registry of patterns and solutions.
Altshuller was presumably so delighted with his findings that he wrote an open, candid letter to chairman Joseph Stalin. What it exactly said history doesn’t tell, but it must have been something like “Comrade Stalin! I will no longer witness how our dear Mother Russia declines like a shipwreck on the shores of the Caspian Sea. I have found a methodology for innovation that will save us from eternal retardation. Please allow me to explain this further in a personal conversation”.
Family and friends must have been holding their breath because Stalin was not exactly well reputed for his witty sense of humour. To their surprise however, Altshuller was invited to the Kremlin to tell his story. Stalin listened to him, in great interest, and then sent him for 5 years to a Siberian gulag. “You grant yourself a good, long reflection, boy”.
In the icy barracks and in almost complete isolation, Altshuller at least had tons of time to further elaborate on his concepts. And so TRIZ was born: Teoriya Resheniya Izobreatatelskikh Zadatch, which – of course – is Russian for ‘Theory of Solving Inventive Problems’. It nowadays proves to be an approach that is highly effective as a catalyst for businesses that are rediscovering the road towards innovation. Even in the workshops with the furry animals.
Yes, there’s much more to tell about innovation. For example about the finer joys of open innovation, the power of the meritocracy or the newest in crowdsourcing. Or about the failing strategy of aping. And – before we forget it – about how to actually execute on great, innovative ideas. More on all of this later. See you then, comrades.