The Exact Science of Creativity

It was during the Business Topology module of the Magical Worlds curriculum that John Quarto-vonTivadar raised his shy hand and quietly asked,

“Have you ever studied TRIZ?” Seeing the blank look on my face, John knew instantly that he might as well have asked, “How much should a hamster weigh?”

“No, John, I’ve never even heard of TRIZ,” I answered. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh,” he responded casually, “it’s only because what you’re teaching is a little like what Genrich Altshuller got thrown in prison for back in 1950.”

A bit of computer-aided research the next morning revealed TRIZ to be an acronym for a Russian phrase that means, “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving.”

Evidently, Genrich Altshuller had the right idea at the right time–but in the wrong place.

Born during Stalin’s abuse of the people of Soviet Russia, Genrich Altshuller didn’t have the freedom to study, say, or do as he pleased. So when at the age of 20 he wrote a letter to the government suggesting that Soviet scientists might be more productive if they employed a systematic method of creative thought, Stalin, offended by the suggestion that Russian scientists weren’t already perfect, responded by having Altshuller arrested and sent to prison.

But Altshuller outlived the old fool and was released shortly after Stalin died. And though he had been wrongfully imprisoned for more than 6 years, the irrepressible Altshuller immediately went back to work. After studying 200,000 patents while clerking in the patent office, Altshuller concluded that there are only about 1,500 basic problems, all of which can be solved rather easily by applying a series of 40 fundamental principles. “You can wait a hundred years for enlightenment,” he said, “or you can solve the problem in 15 minutes with these principles.”

Yes, as impossible as this may sound, Genrich Altshuller actually refined a method for synthesizing natural talent and inspiration.

“Although people who had achieved a great deal in science and technology talked of the inscrutability of creativity, I was not convinced and disbelieved them immediately and without argument. Why should everything but creativity be open to scrutiny? What kind of process can this be which, unlike all others, is not subject to control? What can be more alluring than the discovery of the nature of talented thought and converting this thinking from occasional and fleeting flashes into a powerful and controllable fire of knowledge?” — Genrich Altshuller, from his Russian book, Creativity as an Exact Science (1984) (also see Genrich’s much less expensive and much newer book, Innovation Algorithm: TRIZ, systematic innovation and technical creativity, 1999).

Altshuller’s 40 principles have now been successfully applied to nearly every possible category of problem — from business problems to technical problems to social problems to engineering problems. But virtually no one in America has ever heard of him.

Brilliant, contributing students like John Quarto-vonTivadar make me feel a bit guilty about charging them tuition to attend Wizard Academy. Thank God I wasn’t born in Soviet Russia. I’d probably have been thrown in prison for it.

Author: Roy H. Williams