[This post is part of a series on creativity. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Wow, I’m just learning about Altshuller and his discoveries. Amazing stuff.
This man, Genrich Altshuller, was working in a patent clerk role in the Soviet Union after World War II. He was working for the Navy, apparently helping people start innovative proposals.
As I understand, he began to see patterns in the innovation and invention process. As he began to understand the patterns, a couple things happened. First, he developed techniques to simplify the process — to break it down into more manageable steps. Second, he saw the prevalent views on how innovation happens from this new view and grew frustrated with it.
The prevalent views then were like the prevalent views now — that innovative people are just born that way, somehow different from the average person, or that the process can’t be understood. They’re fine if you don’t have a better model, but he did.
He and his colleagues studied patents for patterns. He found that though problems were infinite, there weren’t that many types of solutions, once you appropriately categorized them. They said there were about 1,500 solutions. They got this by studying about two million patents.
That’s one of the first big discoveries they made (also made many times over by many others in many disciplines)
Whatever your problem, someone somewhere has solved it before
The next corollary is
Implementing a previously successful solution tends to be easier and more likely to succeed than trying to re-solve it from scratch.
I don’t know how far-reaching this perspective sounds to someone who buys into the genius myth of creativity. It’s amazing to me. It’s the root of the strategy to build experience and knowledge in a field rather than to try to put yourself in a white room to think freely, or to wish you had been born with different genes.
His research then led to systematizing the solutions — finding techniques to solve problems. He and his researchers came up with 40 techniques to solve problems. They figured that if people looking for inventive solutions to problems knew those 40 techniques, they could solve nearly any problem.
Their research and techniques took hold in the Soviet Union. By the 70s he established teaching centers and laboratories. The movement continued to grow into the 80s.
I’m not sure exactly how it continued to grow past then, but it’s only made some headway into the U.S. Jacob picked it up at some point, teaching it to my class at Columbia Business School in 2005. He probably learned it in Israel, since he works at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Tomorrow I’ll recount some of his principles and techniques…
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