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The Psychology of TRIZ - Understanding TRIZ tools in relation to what we know about how our brain works

| On 20, Feb 2002

First published in the proceedings of the European TRIZ Association, November 2001.

The Psychology of TRIZ

Understanding TRIZ tools in relation to what we know about how our brain works

Dr Graham Rawlinson,
Chartered Psychologist, TRIZ trainer and facilitator
Graham@dagr.demon.co.uk

Abstract

TRIZ is a structured thinking process. We take information, we create models of that information, we assess those models against other models of other systems, we propose alternative models of systems and we test those models against other models. Embedded in that series of operations are some fundamental scientific models of the physical world, some fundamental laws of different kinds, some mathematical models suggesting ranges of operational interactions and some analogies between systems which can be fairly firm of fairly loose.

Each of these operations requires some mental processing by the brain machine and the latest neuroscience suggests our traditional model of how this machine works needs rethinking. The models in our heads, of the world outside, are of many different kinds and exist in different places. Our ability to select and evaluate our thinking, to take control of what we are pursuing in thought, is less than we had imagined.

This paper looks at some fundamental thinking operations in the light of the latest neuroscience and examines how this might help us think about what is happening as we apply TRIZ to design and problem solving.

1. The brain

The latest machines for investigating what is going on in our heads, when we think, are giving us new ways of thinking about thinking.

The first thing to be remodelled is the idea that our sense of the world as vision, hearing, taste, touch and smell is nicely located in particular places. There is so much cross-fertilization between the different sensory maps that it is perfectly reasonable to say you also see with your fingers and hear with your eyes!

But things out there do not just have sensory attributes; they have functional, linguistic, emotive and event memory attributes. So my kitchen table is a place for preparing food, for talking with people over a glass of wine, for standing on to do the decorating, and may even trigger memories of my parents or grandparents. Any one or more of these attributes being triggered by something else may lead me to see/hear/feel/smell and maybe even taste my kitchen table in that the primary sense maps will be triggered to some degree.

The more familiar I am with anything, the more these interactive patterns will be loaded in my brain system. The more patterns that are loaded the harder it is for me to change how I think/feel/think about what I have in front of me. You have most control when you know least.

Basic neuroscience is telling us loud and clear that the more you are an expert in your field the more you will have trouble thinking about what is going on in a new way! But we knew that didn’t we?

2. Communication

When we want to create something we will probably need to communicate with other people, to share our intentions, to plan actions, to check our thoughts, to ask for information. We have known for a long time that communication is a pretty difficult thing to get right, but now from the neuroscience we can see why. When I talk about a table it is a very different table from the one you have in your head. It has a host of different attributes and connections which we could spend months trying to check and double check. These differences are important for two quite distinct reasons.

The first is the logical/functional/scientific difference, so that when I see my table in my head I may see something which has functionality because of its flexibility (made of wood) warmth, and strength (being a sculptor) whereas you may “see” its functionality as weight, surface weakness, non-malleability (being a production engineer). We may regard each other and ourselves as very professional people but our models of what we have may be very different, even on the most fundamental issues of functionality of design. Our brains will be wired differently because we have a different history leading up to our separate wirings.

The second difference is the affective rather than effective dimension! If our scientific models are different, that is nothing compared to how different our emotive connections will be to different things. In deep memory there will be primary value attributes connected to so many things we have around us. At the emotive level, a sharp knife to a whittler of wood will be very different to a sharp knife in a kitchen for a parent of young children.

All this is true when we talk to each other about what we know. When we talk about what we don’t know, or imagine how things might be created which are different, the tendency to move off down separate paths will be very great, simply because when we move away from the more immediate tangible things around us, the push and pull between ideas will be driven by all these other connecting systems and they will be so different between different people.

3. Inventing

When we want to invent, or simply solve problem with our current inventions, we can go through the sequence of steps that will be familiar to most people. We can take the steps:

What is it we want to do?

What ideas do we have about how to do it?

What do we value about these different ideas?

Which ideas shall we select to work on?

What other problems do we have to solve to make these ideas work?

How do we solve these other problems?

Have we a plan?

Does it make sense?

And shall we do it?

Different process models may play with these steps in different orders and with some loops back and forth. If we think about these steps in relation to our more complex view of what is happening in our heads we can see that things are likely to get very messy very quickly. We might, after a little bit of discussion, all agree on what we want to do. But this agreement may hide a host of different perceptions people have about what is wanted. The team leader, though without this being conscious, may “want” to do something because it was an idea she had when she was 8 and talking to her father who really liked the idea! The research physicist may really “want” to do it because it will require thinking about a bit of physics that he has wanted to explore for many years but never had the right project to work on! None of these reasons for wanting to do something may be apparent and even with questioning may be hard to elicit. Just as, when you look at your kitchen table, it is not easy to sense that you feel it as well as see it, so when you feel you like an idea about what to do it may be very difficult to tap into why, where the drive comes from.

It may not seem to matter much, in the early stages, why you want to do something, because surely, you have all agreed on what you want to do? But in practice, it does matter a lot. Because when you start generating ideas about how to do something, and selecting which approaches you want to pursue, the different primary reasons for doing it will emerge. Suddenly the ideas being developed do not offer research into that key area of physics, or the ideas have moved away from the original idea the team leader had with her father all those years ago. The personal energy to pursue solutions comes from the inner drives to seek those solutions. Take away this energy and the project starts to founder. People lose interest. All because this is really how the brain works. It is not a simple logical machine going from one concept to another in a systematic way. It takes short cuts, it pushes thoughts in one way and then another for all kinds of reasons. The thinking machine is creative, but mainly for its own purposes.

4. TRIZ

So how do we get round having to work with this set of fairly unreliable thinking machines, which don’t even ‘show’ you what is being seen by your eyes?

Well, what is very useful is a set of tools which help you handle each of the thinking steps so that you can check and double check that your brain is not misguiding you about what is going on.

You can use the concept of TRIZ functionality and if there is any doubt about the functionality because it is being offered and explained at an abstract level (e.g. bright colours ‘help’ people see the warning signs) you can ask for functionality descriptions at a harder molecular/quantum level (e.g. for a short time more energetic photons trigger more neuronal responses from the retina).

You can use the concept of Resources to get people to check that the entire list of possible Resources of what is available and what could be available has been worked on for possibilities.

You can use Ideality to ask how much the model can be simplified, what can be cut out, what can be replaced with simpler items.

You can check systematically, piece by piece, attribute by attribute, how far down the path of evolution of complexity has each feature moved?

And finally, or maybe even as the first step, you can ask what kinds of Contradictions are in the system as currently designed.

Given what we know about the brain now, we can see that when we simply go into creative approaches for problem solving, trusting that the brains we have will be able to sort out the various options in a reliable way we often get things wrong. But by using TRIZ tools in a systematic way we can avoid many of the problems that emerge. Our brains cannot be reliable; they are not built for reliability but for efficiency. With our TRIZ tools we can check what our brains are offering step by step. We can move our thoughts along analytically, in ways which do not destroy the creative potential of doing things in a different way.

5. So why does TRIZ work?

If we review many of the great advances in science they have come about because we have found a way to review what we think we are seeing. We may have thought we saw the Sun go round the Earth, but when we had the telescope we found that what we were seeing did not quite fit, neatly, what we thought we were seeing. In the same way, a microscope helps us see what is going on and ever finer ways of probing small things give us ever greater insights into what is there.

We have to learn how to see things reliably because the brain can create any number of ways of seeing things. It is more creative than accurate. It has to be in order to make any sense at all of the mass of data it gets all the time and which, were it not for a bit of creative licence, would never make sense. We, meaning our brains, take an active part in how we construct our world. We can’t do this without some respect for what is out there, of course. But also, we can’t expect the world to tell us how it is all put together. It won’t.

Just as the telescope and the microscope are tools for seeing the physical properties of objects, there are other tools for seeing into the functionality of things. These are the tools of science and mathematics, logic and modelling. Our creative minds can set up all kinds of imaginary worlds, with demons and monsters, ethereal beings and aliens of any kinds. Over millennia we have created all kinds of demonic models of the physical world, and slowly, as our tools for examining these models become more sophisticated, the models improve. TRIZ helps us manage our creative thinking by allowing us to test the options that the brain suggests, slowly and methodically, either in a simple logical way or by comparison with analogous designs. The TRIZ tools provide a different kind of focus on features of ideas, and this different focus gives us new features which help us review our model.

When we used to think that our brains slowly worked towards an ever more accurate model of the world we could believe that the model in our heads somehow matched the world outside. Now we know that we have no distinct models in our heads; we have systems which are constantly reviewing and reworking the world in a creative way. We can see that we need an external process for checking our thinking, if this is to be truly reliable. TRIZ offers us one set of checking tools. TRIZ need not, and maybe should not, be seen as a set of process tools based on engineering design and problem solving. That was simply the source for the research. The object of the research with TRIZ was really the thinking process itself. TRIZ has aided the development of thinking about thinking. At heart, it is a fundamental set of psychological tools for the very essence of thinking. Well done Altshuller!

6. Conclusion

It is great fun, and very easy, to use TRIZ tools in an open and creative way, simply going for idea after idea, until you get that buzz which tells you this is the one to go for! Trusting intuition in this way is probably very wise and certainly efficient – most of the time!

But if you really have to get it right, and be sure you are getting it right, then this is where TRIZ offers a systematic approach not shared by other problem solving tool kits. And it is because of how the brain works, with its multi layered patches of networks and connections, all firing and not firing in ways which are impossible to mimic, that we need the system of TRIZ to keep our ideas in good order.

Further Reading

  1. Claxton, G., ‘Hare Brain Tortoise Mind’, (Fourth Estate, 1997)

  2. McCrone, J., ‘Going Inside’, (Faber and Faber, 1999)

  3. Hobson, J., ‘The Chemistry of Conscious States’, (Little, Brown and Company, 1994)

  4. Goleman, D., ‘Vital Lies, Simple Truths, the psychology of self-deception’, (Bloomsbury, 1997)

  5. Tannen, D., ‘You just don’t understand, Men and Women in conversation’, (Virago, 1991)

Paper copyright by Graham Rawlinson