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Nine Windows Technique Framework for the Future

Posted by on in Post University - TRIZ and Quality
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Nine windows creativity technique offers a practical framework to consider a range of future opportunities

One of the challenges we face in creative problem solving is mentally getting out of our own way. We tend to be so trapped in our unique perspective that it limits our ability to see other possibilities. Psychological inertia (Altshuller, 1999), or resistance to change, echoes in phrases like these:

• "It will not work that way"

• "That has been tried before and it dod not work here"

• "I am paid to meet requirements in specifications, not to improve"

• "That will never work here"

When it comes to defeating psychological inertia, one of my favorite thought exercises comes from Genrich Altshuller, the creator of TRIZ, the theory of inventive problem solving. Describing a scenario in which a frying pan is attached to a dog’s tail, causing noise when the dog runs, he asks, "At what speed must the dog run to not hear the noise from the frying pan?" (Altshuller, 1999)

Gordon Cameron identifies eight ”routine causes of psychological inertia”:

  1. Having a fixed vision (model) of the solution or the root cause.
  2. False assumptions (trusting the data).
  3. Specific terminology in a language that is a strong carrier of psychological inertia.
  4. Experience, expertise, and reliance upon previous results.
  5. Limited knowledge, hidden resources or mechanisms.
  6. Inflexibility (model worship), trying to prove a specific theory, stubbornness.
  7. Reusing the same strategy.
  8. Rushing to a solution, incomplete thinking. (Cameron, 2010)

What's needed is a structured way to look at our challenge or opportunity through different "lenses." The creative problem-solving technique called "Nine Windows," described in the excellent book, The Innovator's Toolkit (Silverstein, 2012) by David Silverstein, Philip Samuel and Neil de Carlo, does just that, by enabling you to look at innovation opportunities across the dimensions of time (past, present, future) and space (super system, system, subsystem). In other words, it gives you a set of tools that you can use to consider your opportunity by breaking it into smaller pieces as well as considering the larger context into which it fits. Here's how it works:

Step 1 - Prepare a nine windows grid 

On a blank sheet of paper or flipchart, draw nine boxes arranged in a 3 x 3 matrix. Label the bottom row of boxes (from left to right) past, present and future. Label the far left boxes (from top to bottom) super system, system, subsystem (see the illustration above right for an example).

Step 2 - Fill in the center box

In the center box, put a brief description or picture related to the innovation opportunity or challenge.

Step 3 - Identify the super system and subsystem

In the present dimension, the middle column, fill in the super system and subsystem boxes above and below the center box. The super system relates to how the system or object interacts with the surrounding environment. To complete this box, ask, "What larger system encompasses the system or object?" The subsystem breaks the present system or object down into the components and characteristics that constitute it. To complete this box, ask, "What makes up the object in its present form?"

Step 4 - Determine the past and future

Now fill in the past and future boxes to the left and right of the center box. Don't limit yourself to just the immediate past or future. Instead, experiment with defining this temporal dimension in more than one way by asking questions such as these:

  • What did the system or object look like before its current incarnation, and what will look like in the future?
  • Where was the system or object before its present state, and where will it be in the future? The answer can range from a few seconds to years into the past or future.
  • What happened to the system or object from its creation to its present form or function? What will happen after it ceases to function in the present?
  • Before the present system or object existed, what was the previous solution for the job to be done, and what future solution could be developed to address the same job to be done?
  • How can these system inputs be modified to eliminate, reduce or prevent the harmful function, event or condition from impacting the output? Or, how can the system's output be modified in a corrective or reactive way?

Step 6 - Complete the grid

Complete the grid by filling in the four corners - the past and future states of the supersystem and the subsystem. You can complete these boxes in any order. Although you don't have to fill in all the corners, it's worth spending a few minutes trying. If you get stuck, take a short break and return to the problem with fresh eyes. The answers depend on the specifics of the supersystem and subsystem you defined in step 3, as well as the approach you took to be temporal dimension in step 4.

Step 7 – Re-assess the opportunity

After filling in the nine windows grid, re-assess the innovation opportunity to determine if you should focus your efforts at the system, subsystem or supersystem level, and in which temporal dimension.

This technique is excerpted from The Innovator’s Tookit by David Silverstein, Philip Samuel and Neil de Carlo.


  1. Altshuller, Genrich. Innovation Algorithm: TRIZ, systematic innovation and technical creativity.Worcester, MA:Technical Innovation Center, Inc., 1999, 122.
  2. Kowalick, James. "Psychological Inertia.” The TRIZ Journal, August 1998,
  3. Cameron, Gordon. TRIZICS. N.p.: CreateSpace, 2010, 86.
  4. Silverstein, D., & Samuel, P. (2012). The innovator's toolkit 50+ techniques for predictable and organic sustainable growth, second edition (2nd ed.). Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.

I am the academic program manager for quality and a professor in the Malcolm Baldrige School of Business at Post University. I am also a PhD candidate in Human & Organizational Systems at Fielding Graduate University, and I have a Master of Science in Engineering Administration and a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, both from the University of Tennessee. Currently I am also serving as the President for The Altshuller Institute for TRIZ Studies.
My work experience includes over 30 years as a quality professional, achieving multiple certifications in the areas of continuous improvement and innovation: Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, Design for Six Sigma Master Black Belt, Organizational Climate Practitioner, and TRIZ (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving) Practitioner. I have also served as a judge for the Michigan Quality Award and an Examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award
Academic background includes being an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan, Dearborn campus, where I taught organizational learning and systems thinking; and at Indiana/Purdue’s Fort Wayne campus where I taught undergraduate statistics. I have also taught certification courses for the American Society for Quality Local Chapters for Reliability Engineering and Quality Engineering.
My philosophy of teaching has evolved from these years of experience in the corporate world and affiliations with institutions of higher education. Reflecting on my past experiences, there are three core beliefs that guide my teaching:
1. People have a built in desire to learn

2. People learn their whole lives
3. Responsibility for effective learning belongs equally to both student and teacher
My research and academic interest are focused on continual evolution of the Quality and Innovation disciplines and building core competencies in people and organizations for continual improvement, creativity, and innovation.
On a personal note, I enjoy photography, golf, fly fishing and gardening. I currently live in Plymouth, Michigan with my wife Jo Ellen. We have three daughters with their respective partners and six grandchildren, two boys and four girls. We also are maintaining a home in the Waterbury, CT area, at Post University, as well as our home in Michigan.


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