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Eat Soup With a Fork to Learn Innovation

| On 01, Jul 2008

Ellen Domb

My colleague Jim Belfiore at the Invention Machine Company has a great blog, with a mix of personal stories, professional observations, and just plain good writing.   


This column is a reprint of his recent blog, which is the 4th article in Jim’s “Why Johnny Can’t Innovate” series.  Please use the “comment” button at the end of this column to give Jim and me your reactions and your ideas!—Ellen


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At the end of my recent article,  I told you that the secret to five-minute innovation was learning to eat soup with a fork.


Those of you who’ve just pulled out a spork and feel as if you’ve accomplished something might want to hold off on the victory dance for just a few minutes.)  [IMG style=”WIDTH: 152px; HEIGHT: 140px” height=200 alt=”” src=”http://www.triz-journal.com/wp-content/uploads/library/images_upload/spork2.jpg” width=200 align=right border=0]


At its core, innovation is the process of creating or discovering ideas that solve a problem, or fill a need. Logistical details regarding the quality and implementation of ideas generally reside outside the innovation process which creates them. History teaches us that for any kind of innovative breakthrough, whether in industry, art or academia, many ideas need to be created and evaluated before a winning idea emerges. The Economist estimates that the number of ideas needed to fuel a successful product development initiative approaches three-thousand.


Think about that for a moment. For a winning idea which is made manifest as a product in today’s markets, hundreds or even thousands of similar ideas have to be created, validated, and filtered. Winning product development companies recognize this, but their challenge is none the less a formidable one. In order to fill a product pipeline, a winning company (or individual) must have an ability to come up with more ideas of higher quality, and in less time to compete in a global market.

They must master sustainable innovation.

Is it really possible to minimize the time it takes to create or discover an idea? In my experience, successful, rapid and repeatable innovation first means breaking problems down into their simplest, independent forms. Repeatable methodologies and task-based tools are then applied to tackle these simpler problems. Mastering skills and tools that enable quick creation of even a few ideas to solve simple problems is the key to developing breakthrough ideas when solving much larger problems. All it takes to develop these skills is a bit of mental calisthenics, and the will to exercise on a daily basis. The essential (and only) innovation exercise you’ll ever need is this:

Challenge yourself to create and validate just one idea in 5 minutes.

I often pose this challenge to industry leaders, executives and students. Take the dumbest, simplest problem you can find and try to independently create one new idea to address it. Learning to eat soup with a fork is a perfect problem because the goal is so absurd. Why would we actually choose to use a fork to eat soup? The obvious answer is that we wouldn’t. There is safety in this exercise, because very likely we don’t care if the idea is good or not, and that’s exactly the point.

Often we let the fear of failure and the high stakes of success constrain our creative and critical thought processes. We often focus on finding the right answer as the first answer, which means that we rarely learn anything about our own thought processes, let alone try to improve them. Five Minute Innovation changes the focus from finding the “right” answer(s) to honing our creative thought processes and finding one answer quickly.

So, first we need a methodology of thought, but which? The Scientific Method? Six Hats? Deming Wheels? Creative Whack-Pack? Rider-Waite? Take your pick or bring your own method – the important thing is to be consistent in any thought method’s application. For our creative plunge into the soup, I’m going to use a methodology known as the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, or as it’s known in the original Russian form, TRIZ.

A word or two about TRIZ: TRIZ is a wonderful problem solving methodology. Unfortunately due primarily to language barriers, it hasn’t been as widely practiced as other methods over the years. The fundamental benefits and applications of TRIZ are relatively simple to master. Software applications such as Invention Machine Goldfire Innovator provide automation and facilitation of key benefits from the TRIZ method. For more information on the TRIZ methodology itself, the TRIZ Journal website is a good place to start reading.

Getting back to our forking soup problem, we have a definite tradeoff here, or what often is referred to as an engineering contradiction. A part of our system’s design (presumably with the goal in mind of transporting soup) is completely at odds with what’s happening (the soup falls through the fork tines). In the TRIZ method, this is a sweet spot for rapid, creative thinking. We are encouraged to consider using what are known as some of the Forty Inventive Principles by thinking about the problem through a pre-defined contradiction analysis. I’ll spare you the theory here, but let’s jump to the thinking part. One TRIZ-based analysis suggests that with this given tradeoff, we look at solving the systemic problems by any of several approaches:



  • Change any parameter of the system including its phase, flexibility, consistency, temperature, (etc.)
  • Introduce a porous element or intermediary into the system
  • Do something in advance to increase the current system’s efficiency


So, given these constraints for thinking about a way to solve the problem, what can you think of in just five minutes?

How about:



  • Freeze the soup. (“Waiter, I asked for some really cold Gazpacho.”)
  • Use the fork to pick up a piece of bread which can then be used to soak up larger volumes of soup.
  • Bend the fork tines to create a pair of pincer grips for grabbing the edge of the soup bowl, and bend the fork handle around to look like a cup handle. Grab the edge of the bowl with your newly formed pincer grips. You’ve just turned the bowl and fork system into a gigantic mug. (I take no responsibility for your dry cleaning bills or any restaurant blacklisting you may encounter should you try this idea.)


Are all these ideas winners? Probably not. The point is that it only took a short time to create and explore them.

Many ideas usually need to be created and evaluated before confidence to choose any single idea is sufficient. While everyone’s creative capabilities are different, everyone has the ability to improve both the level and frequency of simple, pro-active problem solving through short and repeatable exercises.

Five Minute Innovation is a method which, when consciously applied, can help hone and tune technical and creative thought processes. If gaps or blanks appear during its application, that’s just as important as coming up with new ideas. It indicates a need for additional knowledge and perspectives, which helps both current and future innovation cycles. Acquiring and managing knowledge is separate from the innovation process, but is another barrier to Johnny’s innovation, which I’ll talk about in a future article.


So, when you have five minutes to spare, what new ideas will you create?


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See http://andromeda-30.blogspot.com/ for the whole series.