Physical Contradictions: Solving Or Managing?
Editor | On 20, Oct 2019
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
For me, the physical contradiction part of TRIZ/SI still remains the weakest part of the toolkit. Something has been niggling at the back of my mind ever since I read Polarity Management (Reference 1) over a decade ago. Author, Barry Johnson, was an early advocate of the importance of contradictions in the problem-solving world. Unlike TRIZ, however, Johnson’s view was that contradictions were in effect only ‘solvable’ in the sense that the two ends of the contradiction had to be made visible and then ‘managed’. A big part of the TRIZ story, of course, is that the innovator’s primary job is to ‘eliminate’ contradictions. All I’ve seen and done in the last 25 years confirms the truth of that belief. But at the same time, I’m also very conscious every time I attempt to teach newcomers the mechanics of the physical contradiction solving process that more often than not the recommended solutions are more about ‘managing’ than ‘eliminating’ the contradiction at hand. To take one of the more cringe-worthy examples: I still find myself using spectacles as a way of illustrating the various different contradiction ‘solving’ strategies, and describe the use of two pairs of spectacle to solve the ‘focus close and focus distant’ contradiction as a ‘separation in time’ strategy. If I, as a wearer have to carry around two pairs of glasses to allow the possibility of both reading and driving, have I ‘solved’ the contradiction? Or am I merely ‘managing’ it? The reality, my discomfort tells me, is that this separation in time strategy is much more about managing the problem. I achieve the final outcomes I want, but I do it at the expense of an inconvenient side-problem.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that all of the ‘separation’ strategies available to physical contradiction ‘solvers’ are versions of this same thing. We look to separate the two opposing poles of the contradiction using the conditional differences made possible using space, time, or – more recently (References 2, 3) – ‘interface’. The template sheet that concludes the Reference 3 article essentially forces the problem solver to focus on just these three separation strategies:
Figure 1: Physical Contradiction Template (PCT)
The Venn Diagram on the right hand side of the template offers up a small number of Inventive Principle suggestions – 13, 25, 7, 28, 26 and 27 – if the problem-solver determines that they are unable to separate the contradiction in any of space, time or interface dimensions, but in effect this list is very often interpreted as an emergency back-up or after-thought by users. This is a shame since in many ways, it is what happens once a problem-solver determines that none of the separation strategies (or the Inventive Principle recommendations that accompany them) is offering up a ‘good enough’ answer.
If we go back to the manner in which the Physical Contradiction story is presented in the Hands-On Systematic Innovation book, problem-solvers are presented with a table that lists a number of ‘Transition’ strategies after the three Separation options:
The idea – as indicated in the footnote at the bottom of the table – is that users effectively work through the list as a menu. With, again, the ‘Transition’ elements ending up being an ‘if all else fails’ after-thought.
And so, here’s the problem. Per the Einstein quote at the head of this article, these ‘Transition’ strategies are actually the most powerful. Further, I’m now convinced that all of the Separation strategies are ‘merely’ about ‘managing’ the contradiction, and that if the problem-solver is looking to genuinely ‘solve’ (i.e. eliminate) the contradiction, then it is only the Transition strategies that will enable such jumps.
In the spectacle story, for example, the most powerful answers are the ones that take us in the direction of laser surgery (transition to the super-system) or, slightly more radical, some kind of gene therapy that prevent hardening of the lens that tends to occur as we age (transition to the sub-system), or even having computer screens that automatically re-focus what’s on the screen to compensate for the eyes’ failings (transition to the inverse system).
This blinding flash of the obvious (twenty years in the making!) suggests that we have the whole physical contradiction ‘solving’ story the wrong way around. Shouldn’t we be looking to actually eliminate the contradiction before we compromise and accept that we will merely ‘manage’ the problem?
If you’ve read any of my articles before, you’ll know that I spend a lot of time attacking people who spend their time asking either/or questions. And now I’ve kind of done the exact same thing myself. Should we look to manage before we solve? Or should we look to solve before we manage? Answer: both. It depends on our circumstances, right? If we’re looking for a quick fix, we probably start with – or ‘just’ – the Separation strategies. If we need a genuine breakthrough and have the freedom to go outside the confines of our current system (“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”), we should probably start with – or ‘just’ use – the Transition strategies.
Either way, we ought not to be thinking about the Transition strategies as an after-thought. Which in turn means the SI research team has had to think a lot harder about how we best help problem-solvers to get the best out of them. The HOSI Table, in other words, is not good enough. And neither is the Figure 1 Venn Diagram.
Here’s what we now think it ought to look like, once we take out the ‘after-thought’ thinking of the previous models and actually start to examine how physical-contradiction-solvers have achieved their solutions:
Figure 2: Solution Strategies Associated With The Four System Transition Directions
The Inventive Principles within each of the first three options represent a ranked list of possibilities, based on the frequency with which each Principle has been used to achieve a breakthrough. The fourth, ‘Transition to Alternative’ option now becomes a hint to stop thinking about Inventive Principles and to connect instead to some form of Function Database to explore other possible ways and means of delivering the intended function(s).
Overall, then, that means once we have encountered and formulated a physical contradiction, we have two overall routes to explore – one about managing the contradiction and one about solving it:
Figure 3: Overall Physical Contradiction Strategy Options
I think I might be speaking more about this model in future ezine articles. My instincts tell me we’re finally somewhere close to properly cracking the physical contradiction story, and bringing it up to the same level as the rest of the 21st Century TRIZ toolkit. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from any brave souls that decide to give it a try.
- Johnson, B., ‘Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems,’ HRD Press, 1996.
- Systematic Innovation E-Zine, ‘Re-Thinking Physical Contradictions #1: Technical Problems’, Issue 181, April 2017.
- Systematic Innovation E-Zine, ‘Re-Thinking Physical Contradictions #2: Business Problems’, Issue 191, February 2018.