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Inspiration vs Perspiration (Flash of Genius versus The Repeatable Innovation Process)

        posted by , September 18, 2011

Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration!
~ Thomas Edison

Does innovation come in a flash of genius (Aha! moments) — or are there repeatable patterns of innovation?

Flash of Genius

When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That's relativity.
~ Albert Einstein

Einstein discovered the theory of relativity in a flash of genius that redefined the fundamental laws of time and space. It all started like this: Einstein commuted to his job at the Bern patent office on a street car. Each day he passed the Zytglogge clock tower.


One day, Einstein suddenly realized that if the street car was travelling at the speed of light and a passenger looked back — the time on the tower would appear to be stopped. However, the passenger's watch would keep ticking away. In other words, time is not uniform and absolute: it depends on speed.

Flash of Genius Test

Flash of genius is a commonly reported phenomena amongst successful innovators. A problem may take hours, days or years to solve — but the answer comes very quickly (in a creative burst).

The flash of genius concept is so well accepted that it has become enshrined in patent laws. From 1941-1952 US Patent law required a flash of genius test for all patents:

The new device, however useful it may be, must reveal the flash of creative genius, not merely the skill of the calling. If it fails, it has not established its right to a private grant on the public domain.

The flash of genius test was replaced with a similar concept in 1952: non-obviousness. European patent laws use the concept of inventive step. The general idea of all three concepts is that patents can't be obvious. In other words, patents need to be innovative.

A Process for Innovation

Innovation is not the product of logical thought, although the result is tied to logical structure.
~ Albert Einstein

There have been many attempts to systemize the innovative process. After all, if you could develop a system — you could consistently churn out innovations. The most developed system of innovation sprang out of communist Russia in the late 1940s (TRIZ).

TRIZ is a problem solving methodology developed by Russian engineer Genrich Altshuller (shortly before he was imprisoned for 25 years in 1950 by Stalin). It is based on the idea that there are patterns of inventive thinking.

TRIZ is the product of a large scale study of global patent literature. It is widely used by research labs, product development teams and engineers. It is based on the idea that there are patterns of problems (contradictions) and solutions (inventive patterns).

triz training

By breaking a problem down into known contradictions corresponding to known inventive patterns — you can theoretically solve the problem in a systematic fashion.

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