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The Big Idea: Doing Things Better


In the last of this series of six articles, Brian Campbell looks at how innovation in itself doesn't necessarily solve problems and offers an alternative focus "doing things better". Links to all other articles in this series are below.

The previous articles have presented you with a number of useful, simple to use tools to help you solve problems faster and more effectively. This article will sum up various aspects of innovation in general and systematic innovation in particular.

So what is innovation? My favourite definition is "doing things better". It avoids many of the pitfalls of the term innovation, which many think is all about high technology, automation, patents etc. "Doing things better" is an inclusive phrase – we all want to do things better; only a subset of us may want to "innovate".

In many cases innovations do not do things better. They can be products using a new technology trying to find a useful outlet. My favourite example in this category is the "Segway" - a high tech. moving platform on which the user stands and steers without using a steering wheel. A technically brilliant product but what does it do better? The definition of ideality = benefits/(cost+harm) (see Getting the Ideal Solution) springs to mind. Cost is higher – than walking or cycling. The benefit might be considered as speed – certainly faster than walking but not faster than a car or even cycling. The harm consists of lack of exercise, safety aspects and suitable places to use the device.

Systematic Innovation is inherently about doing things better. Defining the problem fully (see Defining the Problem) ensures that many possible solutions are presented. Identifying contradictions (see How to Improve Brainstorming Sessions") leads to the 40 principles – use simple methods to solve your problem; benefiting from the received wisdom of others' work. And finally perception mapping (see Perception Mapping) helps groups with different interests and agendas come to an agreed forward strategy.

One fundamental concept within systematic innovation I have yet to mention is resources. It has been touched upon in the problem definition but it is worth expanding on here. Any old fool can solve a problem by throwing money at it, by drafting in more people or calling in an expert at great expense. Thinking about resources encourages you to solve your problem with what you have already got. In particular it teaches that even seemingly harmful things might be useful.

An excellent example of this last point concerned a building society that had some "problem" customers. These customers were forever complaining about trivial issues and the company felt that they were more trouble than they were worth. Their problem statement could be considered as: “How do we get rid of problem customers?” The systematic innovation approach was to investigate this “harmful” group of customers and consider how they might be utilised – could they be used as a resource?

This approach turned the problem on its head. Rather than tackling the issue in a negative way the company was forced to look at its "problem" customers in a positive way. It lead the company to set up a focus group to look at how the customer service might be improved and it invited those “problem” customers to get actively involved. After all, the company was forced to admit that they were an articulate, motivated and persistent group of people: admirable qualities which the company put to good use.

So what are your hidden resources? What are your problem areas that you might be able to turn into benefits with a bit of systematic thinking?

Another excellent resource is to think in terms of who has solved your problem before? Many years ago a carpet manufacturer wanted to speed up its changeover times. They decided to talk to an airliner maintenance team. A completely different field but they reasoned that they would be skilled in changing equipment quickly. A site visit lead to a massive improvement in performance and at very little cost.

This last example reinforces one of the rules of brainstorming (see The Brainstorm) get non-experts involved in your brainstorming team. It is even better to go outside your company and still more outside your business fields.

To conclude the most important part of “doing things better” is to actually practice on real problems. The hardest part is to find the real problems to work on. Problems in your own area are straightforward but they can be quickly sorted. If you want to become fully proficient in the techniques you will need to start working on other people’s problems. This is a real stumbling block in that no one wants someone else to solve their problems for them. It is seen as a failing on their part so you will need to fully involve the problem owner and guide them to solve the problem themselves.

Read more in this series:
The Brainstorm
How to Improve Brainstorming Sessions
Perception Mapping
Getting the Ideal Solution

* About the author: Brian Campbell has been working with systematic innovation for five years. He has a degree in physics and initially came across the techniques whilst working in research and development at Pilkington. He is currently working on an EU funded project to produce a CDROM to help SMEs become more innovative. He has applied TRIZ techniques to the glass industry, water industry, electronics industry and the photographic film business and is keen to see systematic innovation more widely adopted in the UK. He can be contacted at


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