Teaching the world to think like an engineer

Posted on July 18, 2016
Archive : July 2016
Category : Triz Blog

I was talking to an engineering professor friend recently and extolling the virtues of how engineers think....

I come from a family of engineers – both my parents, my brother, two of my uncles, are engineers, as were both my grandfathers – and I feel this has given me a bit of an inside track into understanding what makes engineers tick. I’ve also worked with engineers, mostly on technical problems for 12 years helping to shift their thinking using TRIZ.

I have a music degree and my first job was in management consulting, and I found coming into the world of engineering not only intimidating but also fascinating. Engineers are a joy to work with – they are very focused on the task in hand and seem to bridge the gap between being very logical but also very creative. I don’t know may other disciplines that manage this: I’ve seen many highly creative musicians lack structure and process in their thinking, and management consultants focused on answering the question at hand in a pragmatic and practical way, unwilling to explore creative solutions, let alone redefining the problem. True success at anything requires both creative and structured thinking, of course, but engineering seems to be the first discipline I have worked with where both approaches are given equal weight and equal reward. 

I’m not suggesting engineers are all the same: one of things that I’ve observed is that engineers differ in how they approach problems and work. However, while TRIZ gives each individual new ways of thinking, none of these seem to be new to engineering as a discipline. Each TRIZ tool seems to me to capture one aspect of clever engineering thinking, so that while certain tools might be new to one individual, others would just be replicating the way they already think. Almost every workshop someone comes up to me and says that a tool, Thinking in Time and Scale, for example, is how they already approach problems they just didn’t know it. 

TRIZ had made explicit something they already did naturally. Many engineers also say they like TRIZ because “it fits well with how I already think”.

I Have a theory! 

I have a theory (currently not tested, but if anyone’s looking for a PhD topic, get in touch!) that TRIZ has somehow “bottled” the most ingenious, clever thinking that engineers naturally do into a series of tools and processes. This is exciting for engineers – one of our taglines is “TRIZ turns good engineers into great engineers” – as it enables them to access the right kind of thinking for the problem at hand. 

So TRIZ broadens engineers’ mental toolkits, giving them the most diverse set of approaches and perspectives possible. But this is even more exciting for the rest of us!

TRIZ definitely gave me a completely different perspective on how to approach problems and when non-engineers learn TRIZ they usually get even more excited than engineers. However, getting them to the point where they get excited and can see TRIZ can be useful seems to take longer, as if it is a bigger mental leap: “thinking TRIZ” seems much more different as a way of tackling problems for people without any engineering background. It’s not just that they’re not as clever as engineers (although engineers are often frighteningly bright and enjoy a meaty intellectual challenge); perhaps it is just harder for them to understand the logic of why they are being asked to think this way, and to believe that it will help.

TRIZ for Engineers problem solving

Once people who are not engineers have been convinced by TRIZ they realise it’s fantastic – and if people turn up on one of our regular workshops they are already convinced and do well, as they have had to make the investment of time, money and hope to attend a workshop.

Engineers have been taught to think a way which fits very well with TRIZ – most of us who have learned a profession – have been taught to think differently, according to our discipline. We are generally taught problem solving in whatever discipline we have learned in an informal way, as part of developing professional expertise. The idea of an explicit problem solving course for lawyers, or psychologists, or doctors, or scientists is unusual and exciting. We all solve problems every day – why would you not want to do it better? And does it need to be specific for your domain – perhaps many different problems can still be tackled following similar processes?

Even engineers are usually not taught problem solving but they are expected to develop it as a professional skill. I don’t know if engineers are better problem solvers than other professions but perhaps it’s simply that engineers have to do more explicit problem solving every day, and therefore have worked out some of the fundamental processes for doing so most effectively (there’s another PhD topic!). 

Whatever the reason, what we have in TRIZ is a catalogue of all these different ways that engineers think, and I have seen these processes work on other kinds of problem, from reducing staff costs to improving marketing to deciding on a new career.

It is up to us in the TRIZ community to spread the word that TRIZ is useful beyond engineering – and that the reason is it will help you utilise this great thinking that gives you logical processes to structure your thinking and ignites your creative spark.

As I was explaining all this to my friend, he said “you ought to write a book on “how to think like an engineer”” and I said… “I have!”.

TRIZ for Dummies by Lilly Haines-Gadd

Lilly Haines-Gadd

Lilly is the author of 'TRIZ for Dummies', an easy-to-read introduction to TRIZ and part of Wiley’s successful 'For Dummies' series.
Lilly Haines-Gadd

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