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Book Review: Altshuller’s The Innovation Algorithm

| On 10, Apr 1999

Reviewed by Ellen Domb

Title: The Innovation Algorithm: TRIZ, systematic innovation, and technical creativity
Author: Genrich Altshuller, translated by Lev Shulyak and Steven Rodman
Publisher: Technical Innovation Center, Inc.
ISBN: 0-9640740-4-4
Order from: Publisher` http://www.triz.org
Cost: $50. Large format paperback, 312 pages, with 6 pages of photographs.

The Innovation Algorithm was originally published in 1973. This translation makes Altshuller’s own thoughts and research available to English-speaking TRIZ students and practioners for the first time. Lev Shulyak and Steven Rodman are the translators of the Altshuller book And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared, and the compilation of class notes published as 40 Principles. Lev Shulyak and Steven Rodman have done an elegant translation, capturing the tone of the original, as well as the content. (I rely on friends more fluent in Russian than I for this opinion!)

The Innovation Algorithm is not a textbook. It might be viewed best as a collection of essays on invention and creativity. Altshuller’s exploratory style of discovery is clearly illustrated, since he first introduces an idea, summarizes its history, shows what’s gone wrong in trying to apply the idea, then introduces a more systematic approach, or an approach without the logical defects of the original approach, and illustrates how this new approach overcomes the difficulties of the original. Each method is illustrated with a mix of charming stories and technical case studies.

The first section of the book deals extensively with methods and non-methods of invention that existed prior to the development of TRIZ, and Altshuller’s views on their deficiencies. For those interested in the development of TRIZ, this will be a treasure-trove of information.

Those interested exclusively in the practice of TRIZ may question whether they should read a book that is the 1973 version of TRIZ, since more recent work is available. (See, for example, Step-by-Step TRIZ reviewed in June, 1997, or Tools of Classical TRIZ, reviewed in this issue.) The comparison of the versions of ARIZ-61 and ARIZ-71 presented here with each other and with ARI-85c and some of the later versions of ARIZ will be a useful learning experience, deepening the understanding of ARIZ overall and of the development of TRIZ as a research process, for those who learn by understanding the history and development of the process.

The introduction to the section on the contradiction matrix and the 40 principles has some useful notes on how the research was done. Book reviewers typically make comments such as “a longer explanation would be useful in future editions” –since the author is deceased and the book is 26 years old, this is an empty wish, unless some of Altshuller’s associates take up the challenge to write a history of the development of the tools of TRIZ. Certainly, thanks to the early translation of And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared,

the contradiction matrix and the40 principles are among the best known and most used tools of TRIZ, and knowing more about the history and development of the concepts would help many users.

The descriptions of the principles are very good, and the examples are chosen from a wide range of technologies, and include Altshuller’s note warning: “Let the reader not be confused by ‘small’ and ‘funny’ ideas that support some principles. What’s most important is their essence.” He also suggests that the list be refreshed frequently from both leading edge development and the patent literature.

For teachers in need of new material, chapter 2 has 14 problems, some with illustrations, that are answered in chapter 3. These are difficult problems, very well explained, and some guidance on solution methods is provided (“Start with step 2-3 of ARIZ.” ” Try this one without the Contradictions Matrix.”)

Altshuller’s thinking on a wide variety of subjects is presented in The Innovation Algorithm. Readers might want to select individual essays for study at different times, rather than read the whole work cover-to-cover. For example, the sections on overcoming the barriers to creative thought are in several different chapters, and can be read together or separately. Section 2-6, “Patented in the Paleozoic Era” has a collection of observations of evolution of inventions in biological evolution that could be enjoyed on its own, or used as a prototype for developing teaching methods.

Supplementary material was added to this translation:

  • An interview with Altshuller in the summer of 1998 (Altshuller died in September, 1998.)
  • Tributes to Altshuller by Victor Fey, Boris Zlotin, and Simon Litvin, with stories about
    the impact of The Innovation Algorithm on their lives.
  • Biographical notes about Altshuller by Leonid Levin. (Reprinted from 40 Principles)

Lev Shulyak and Steve Rodman are to be congratulated on their translation and publication of the important historical resource. Over 100,000 copies of the Russian version have been sold, and, as the tributes illustrate, it was the trigger that fired many people into the world of inventive problem solving.