Feeling Stumped? Innovation Software Can Help

Harvard Business Review

Imagine a team at a ski company that's faced with a big problem: When skiers make sharp turns at high speeds, the edges of their skis lift from the snow, causing the skiers to sometimes lose control. The team needed to lessen the vibrations of its skis. But how? Eventually, they found a great solution in an unlikely place: the music industry. In some violins, they discovered, there's a special layer — a metal grid — that helps to stabilize the instrument, and reduce unwanted vibrations. Problem solved. The ski company adapted the metal grid idea into its ski design.

This type of solution is called an analogous solution, and it's more common than you may think. In fact, I'd estimate that nearly 90% of new solutions are really just adaptations from solutions that already exist — and they're often taken from fields outside the problem solver's expertise.

Analogous solutions are extremely beneficial to businesses because they reduce time to market, and they can get stalled projects moving again. But for a long time they weren't easy to find. If you didn't accidentally happen upon a solution, you were simply out of luck.

This is why I wanted to develop a system that could make accidental discoveries a more predictable and regular occurrence. Since innovative solutions are built upon what people tend to overlook (i.e., the obscure), I've focused my research on creating techniques to counter every known mental block to noticing the obscure. My dissertation, for example, articulated the first technique to counter functional fixedness, a classic obstacle in which people fixate on the common use of an object and overlook other possible uses. Presently, I am focusing on overcoming people's shortcomings to noticing obscure analogies, which resulted in Analogy Finder, a program that mines the U.S. Patent Database for analogous solutions.

Here's how it works. You start with two words that describe what you are looking for. In the case of the ski problem, the two words could be reduce vibrations. Reduce describes the change you are looking for. Vibrations describes what needs changing. From here, the program will take the two words and basically find all the patents that are relevant to the original goal — however that goal is expressed. It will then allow you to narrow and order the results in various ways. The program will even take into account what areas you are an expert in so you don't waste time looking at solutions that you would already have thought of.

There's other software available that looks for analogous solutions, too. IHS Goldfire uses another method to perform similar semantic searches. The Oxford Creativity Database and Creax permit some "canned" searches that return ideas already collected by experts.

There are other possible applications as well. I have been told that many companies don't have a good way to search their own company data to see if someone has ever worked on a similar problem before. Such an analogy program could easily find the previous work, and add efficiency and speed to any task.

There are more applications to come. Wouldn't it be great if we could search beyond patent databases to find adaptable ideas from nature? For example, excessive carbon emissions are threatening our climate. If you type "remove carbon" into an analogy program that searched biological journals and databases, you could find that the human lung has a highly efficient way of removing carbon dioxide from the bloodstream. Carbozyme Inc. adapted this idea into a highly-effective carbon filter for smokestacks. Of course, this company didn't have such a program when they created their lung-inspired carbon filter. But software of this type could help other innovators find other adaptable ideas from nature very quickly.

Analogous-solution software can help us overcome a key mental obstacle to innovation; as a result, it will help us to innovate more quickly and regularly. But we've only scratched the surface. As the software expands to include new fields and databases, the possibilities will only increase, and, hopefully, our ability to innovate may start to catch up with our needs.

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