In this Thought Leader Interview, author David Silverstein explains how the TRIZ problem solving methodology can help organizations to bring structure and direction to their innovation initiatives.

David Silverstein is the President and CEO of Breakthrough Management Group, a consulting firm that specializes in structured innovation, Lean, Six Sigma and strategic planning. He is co-author of INsourcing Innovation: How to Transform Business as Usual into Business as Exceptional, and is the author of the Leadership & Business Blog. In this interview with Chuck Frey, he explains how the TRIZ problem solving methodology can help organizations to bring structure and direction to their innovation initiatives.

Frey: What led you and your co-authors to this line of thinking, that TRIZ could be more than an engineering or product development problem-solving methodology?

Silverstein: Throughout modern history, we have seen that just about all good engineering tools ultimately become “business tools.” Tools for statistical process control have become the tools of risk calculation, engineering planning tools have become strategic planning tools, qualitative tools such as FMEA have become decision making tools, etc. It’s only logical that a tool as powerful as TRIZ will follow the same path.

Frey: How hard is it to adapt a methodology originally developed to solve engineering and product design problems to the broad strategic needs of today’s organizations?

Silverstein: It’s actually not that hard if you can view things abstractly. Engineering and business are one and the same. Designing a business plan can be called, “engineering your business.” You have to get out of the technical engineering or manufacturing world, but TRIZ is actually a tool designed to work through the principle of “abstraction,” so relating it to other aspects of business is a natural.

Frey: How can TRIZ help to make innovation more reliable, predictable and pervasive?

Silverstein: This is one of the misperceptions about TRIZ. TRIZ is a “tool” or a set of tools. It is not a holistic approach to systematic innovation. Many other tools are necessary to create a comprehensive system that delivers reliable, predictable and pervasive innovation. TRIZ is a very big component and the dominant tool, but it is not the only one. TRIZ does help us take a very structured, logical and systematic approach to evaluating a problem and coming up with a unique, or innovative, solution. Through the application of TRIZ, we tend to get to good solutions faster, and different people will tend to arrive at the same solution. That’s the predictable aspect of TRIZ.

Frey: In the book, you talk about strategic and tactical TRIZ. What is the difference between them?

Silverstein: Tactical TRIZ is the process of solving a specific innovation problem, like how to make a balloon smaller yet hold more air. In TRIZ terminology, this is called a “contradiction” or a “technical contradiction.” Solving such contradictions requires an inductive-deductive reasoning process. You go from your specific problem to a generic problem (inductive), then from the generic problem to a generic solution, then from the generic solution to the specific solution (deductive). On the other hand, Strategic TRIZ relies on “evolutionary patterns” to help define an innovation idea, or your next product or service. For instance, if you know that things generally get smaller over time, you consider that when designing your next widget or process. So Strategic TRIZ is more of a purely deductive reasoning process. Aside from this, Tactical TRIZ comes into play to solve sticky technical dichotomies; Strategic TRIZ, on the other hand, guides the thinking about where next to take an organization and its products or services.

Frey: In the drive for constant innovation, why are both creativity (divergent) and TRIZ (convergent) needed?

Silverstein: Think of TRIZ as a problem solving methodology. When we have a problem, we want to converge on the best solution as fast as possible. But sometimes our problem is so broad (like we’re losing market share) that we first need to come up with wild ideas and different interpretations of the problem itself. Only after we’ve settled on the broad idea or specific interpretation of our problem can we think about converging on the “best” solution. To do so sooner would be too limiting. So we need to balance our investment in time and resource to allow us to diverge, but not get out of control, before converging.

Frey: How can TRIZ change the ways in which a company thinks and plans for the future?

Silverstein: TRIZ helps us change the concept of innovation from something that happens as a “eureka moment” in the shower into something you can actually build a business plan around.

Frey: What advantages does TRIZ provide in helping companies to develop an innovation roadmap versus other frameworks, such as disruptive innovation or open innovation?

Silverstein: TRIZ is a tool. It does not compete with the concept of disruption or open innovation. It is a tool that would be used to accomplish disruptive innovation in an open way (through the discovery of what you currently don’t know).

Frey: You mention in your book that it’s almost inevitable that TRIZ will become the common language of business leaders. What makes you so sure about this?

Silverstein: I think TRIZ will become “a” common language among business leaders because history teaches me that. A business has three “meta-functions:” efficiency, improvement and innovation. Or productivity, quality and innovation if you prefer. The point is that the meta-function of efficiency, or productivity, eventually became structured and repeatable in the form of what we call Lean today. It took 40 years but it happened. Similarly, the meta-function of improvement (or quality) became structured and fully systematized with Six Sigma, again taking 50 years or so. But what about innovation? What is the one best proven way? We don’t really have it yet, but it seems inevitable that it will happen, as innovation is also an organizational meta-function. It’s just going to take a little longer, and of it’s not called “TRIZ,” it will be similar in that it will bring control to the innovation function.

Frey: What has to happen for TRIZ to be more widely adopted by business leaders?

Silverstein: The idea of structured or systematic innovation will have to gain more acceptance, and be practiced more by large, world-class organizations. As always, a principle is tested and refined for many years before it reaches a critical mass of acceptance and use; when this happens for Structured Innovation, TRIZ will become much more adopted by business leaders. As well, when one or more CEO’s of major corporations deploy Structured Innovation and achieve large-scale, quantifiable success, then other business leaders will notice and follow suit – because then the bar of excellence will have been raised for all.

Frey: As you talk to business executives, what do you find are the most common misconceptions about TRIZ?

Silverstein: That it’s complicated. That it’s very technical. That it’s Russian (it just started there — it’s global now).

Frey: What do you wish that business leaders understood about TRIZ?

Silverstein: How easy it is to learn and how powerful it is.