Using TRIZ to Understand Complex Issues

By Lilly Haines-Gadd

Triz can help you with complicated problems. One of the benefits of Thinking in Time and Scale is that it can make even wildly complex issues simple to understand; often situations are hard to see clearly because a number of circumstances are combining together to create an outcome, and it can be hard to tease apart these different circumstances.

For example, consider the reasons for the rising levels of obesity in the UK and the US. This is a big problem: being obese raises the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular problems and even cancer, creating increasing pressure on healthcare. The reasons might appear simple: People are consistently eating more calories and doing less exercise.

Recent research has also suggested increased sugar consumption is partially to blame; increased sugar consumption was triggered ironically by the rise of the low-fat diets (in the 1980s fat consumption was considered a big risk factor for heart problems). People started eating more food that had been produced to reduce fat, which often had a lot of sugar added to make the food taste nice (for example, low-fat yoghurts often have similar calories to regular yoghurt, because of the extra sugar).

However this has happened so consistently across populations (and in such a short time) that perhaps the reason so many more people are obese isn’t due to a sudden and collective failure of willpower but rather a number of cultural factors and biological factors. If this is the case, just telling people to step away from the chips and fizzy drinks won’t work: people will need to find ways of changing things across many levels of scale.

This image is an attempt to start mapping this issue out in a context map, explaining some of the causes of obesity, from the past through to the present. In this case, the right-hand column for the future is looking towards solutions to the problem, but if you were trying to predict and plan for the worst-case scenario (and create a case for change), you could also use the right-hand column to chart the impact of what would happen if you did nothing (for example, the cost to healthcare, impact on GDP as a result of lost working hours, changes required for a population of increasing size to seats on public transport, hospital beds etc., shortened lifespans of individuals).


Thinking in Time and Scale ensures that you lift your head and look around your problem to make sure you’re not becoming obsessed with one or two small details and losing sight of the big picture. It also ensures that you’ve scoped the problem correctly and are trying to tackle it at the right level. For example, overly focusing on the individual level by telling everyone to eat less and move more is probably not going to solve the problem on its own (although it will help), because many of the causes for the problem are cultural, and changes occur right in the detail of the food people eat and how it interacts with the gut.

Structural changes to working patterns (giving people more time to cook food from scratch, and have more energy for exercise and outdoor activities at the end of the day) and urban planning (enabling more active lifestyles) might be much more effective in the long-term, in addition to understanding better how humans metabolise food and potentially providing effective medication for people who are already obese to help them lose weight.

Just because it’s easy to see the impact clearly at an individual level doesn’t mean that is the only place that people should be looking for to start tackling the problem – and Thinking in Time and Scale makes this very clear both to understand and communicate to others.