Use The Zwicky Idea Box To Generate More Ideas and Solutions

Posted by on Jun 6, 2021 in Creativity | 0 comments

In the Six Sigma DMAIC process, we are often told to use the brainstorming process to generate as many potential solutions as possible.  Brainstorming is a common method for a team to generate a lot of ideas to solve a problem.  It’s supposed to encourage open thinking when a team is stuck in the “same old way” thinking.  It should get all team members involved so that a few people don’t dominate the whole group and allow team members to build on each other’s creativity while staying focused on their joint mission.  But often, in reality, this just doesn’t happen and we often settle on a mediocre solution that isn’t that creative.

Fritz Zwicky, a Swiss astronomer, developed a technique that allowed him to formulate hundreds of new ideas.  He called it his “morphological analysis.”  Morphological analysis works by first identifying the important dimensions of the problem, which make up the variables or parameters of the model. A Zwicky Box is then constructed where each of the parameters is placed in its own column. Different values of a parameter go into separate rows for that column. Picking a cell from each column results in picking a unique solution to the problem. By trying out different combinations of cells from the table, you can quickly and systematically explore many different solutions.

The process works something like this:

  1. Specify your challenge.
  2. Select the parameters of your challenge.  To determine whether a parameter is important enough to add, ask yourself, “Would the challenge still exist without the parameter I’m considering adding to the box?”
  3. List variations.  Below each parameter, list as many variations as you wish for that parameter.  The number of parameters and variations will determine the box’s complexity.  Generally, it is easier to find new ideas within a simple framework than a complex one.
  4. Try different combinations.  When the box is finished, make random runs through the parameters and variations, selecting one or more from each column and then combining them into entirely new forms.  You can examine all of the combinations in the box to see how they affect your challenge.  If you are working with a box that contains ten or more parameters, you may find it helpful to randomly examine the entire box and then gradually restrict yourself to portions that appear particularly faithful.

Let’s take an example.

Situation:  A new marketing director is looking for a new design for a laundry hamper.  Her challenge, “In what ways might she improve the design of laundry hampers that will capture the customer’s imagination?”

Description:  She analyzes laundry hampers and lists their basic parameters.  She decides to work on four parameters:  material, shape, finish, and position.  She plans to use five variations for each.

Idea Box:  She constructs the box with the parameters on top, leaving five boxes beneath each parameter for the variations.  To generate variations, she asks herself:

  • What materials could be used to make hampers?
  • What shapes can hampers be made in?
  • What finishes can be used on hampers?
  • What are the positions for hampers?

Under each heading, she lists five alternatives.







Idea search:  The next step is to randomly choose one or more variations and connect them to create new possibilities.  These random combinations may trigger new ideas or potential solutions.

After making any random runs through the box, one combination of variations for the parameters provoked an idea for a new design.

The idea: Using the random combination of net material, cylindrical, painted, and positioned on the door, she came up with a laundry hamper fashioned into a basketball-type net, approximately forty inches long, attached to a cylindrical hoop and hung on a backboard that is attached to a door.  This allows kids to play basketball with dirty laundry as they fill the hamper.  When it is full, a tug on a drawstring releases the clothes.

The advantage of a Zwicky Box isn’t in building the ability to think original ideas, but in systematically exploring many ideas that can lead to surprising insights. Often the problem isn’t necessarily coming up with ideas, it’s closing in too early on a few solutions.

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