Brainstorming and Inventing

It is amazing just how many new things can be devised, simply by thinking about them. I was staggered, recently, when I asked several groups of teenage students to think up ways to measure the speed of a Vacuum Bazooka. After a slow start, the students got into the swing of things. Several times we ran out of space on the whiteboard, with a couple of hundred contributions. Even after removing duplicated ideas, and a few that clearly weren’t going to work, we had 40 ideas with a goodly fraction things which probably haven’t been tried before. Watch this website for developments are we try some of them out !

If you want to discover or invent something entirely new, or even if you just want to improve something in a new way, then most of it down to you. But there are some things that can help. If you are working with others, then it may be useful to look at simple approaches like Six Hats, which ingeniously encourages everyone to contribute. If you are unsure where to look for inspiration, then patents and other internet resources are enormously important. You’ll even find some of my work – 30 odd patents and a sprinkling of contributions to obscure corners of Wikipedia. And I have often found ideas which have sparked further ideas by simply looking in old science books. As a part-time professor, I gave an annual lecture on Innovation – which I called the Five and Half Laws of Innovation – to fourth/fifth year engineering students. One thing I talked about in that is the brainstorming procedure invented by Trevor Kletz. It was intended for solving safety conundrums in the chemical engineering industry. Actually with just a few tweaks it can be enormously useful in taking brainstorming beyond Six Hats. Finally, if your inner geek is driving you to go beyond HAZOP, take a look at TRIZ. It isn’t for everyone, but it has led me to the occasional breakthrough.

  • Six Hats and Team Brainstorming #sixhats
  • Resources: Patents, Papers, Internet and Old Science Books #patents
  • The Five Laws of Innovation #fivelaws
  • HAZOP and Inventing Safety #hazop
  • TRIZ : moving a level beyond HAZOP #triz
  • Random Guide Words – beyond TRIZ !

UNDER CONSTRUCTION… Lots more to go in here… but take a look if you like…

Six Hats and Team Brainstorming

An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea. Edward de Bono

There is nothing quite like having an idea and then testing it out in practice, building in the real world what you have thought about in your mind. You often find that real world experiments work out a little differently to your mind’s gedanken experiments, your own thought experiments. And those differences will teach you, make your next thought experiment, and your next real experiment better. Think ! But don’t just think, make it real !

It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all . Edward de Bono

To be creative, you need to have a license to get things wrong – maybe get things wrong several times over.

Creativity is a great motivator because it makes people interested in what they are doing… …Creativity makes life more fun and more interesting. Edward de Bono

Someone who learns because they are trying to create something new has fun, find learning more interesting, is more motivated, and ends up learning more. Learning is generally a bit of a ‘push’ process – having ideas pushed over to you. Learning alongside creation is ‘pull’ learning – pulling the learning in, which is far more effective.

The playful approach is essential…

The Six Hats approach is powerful way to enhance the way we – any of us – think.  It is even more powerful way to enhance how we work together in a team, harnessing the team’s diversity to come up with innovative, non-standard, ground-breaking ideas.  It involves identifying working six different phases

Blue Hat

The Control Hat – this is where you agree how to control the process of brainstorming for the Six Hats Session.

White Hat

The Facts Hat – where you gather up all the facts and figures that you know, about the problem you are considering, about the possible solutions, perhaps identifying where you are missing vital information.

Yellow Hat

The Optimistic Hat – where you

Black Hat

The Pessimistic Hat – where you think of all the many reasons why the problem is difficult and why you idea won’t solve it.  Beware – sometimes many of us are a bit too good at the Black Hat !

Green Hat

The Creative Hat – where we try to think of ways around Black Hat objections, improvements to Yellow Hats, and come up with provocative, brand new ideas to throw into the ring for consideration.

Red Hat

The Emotion Hat – where we express – without having explanations to back them up – our intuitions, how we feel about something. 

In a group, using Six Hats, you all have to wear the same hat at the same time.  This is important, because it organizes the team, and makes sure that things can’t go wrong in the team.  For example, someone may think they have far and away the best idea, and only admits to wonderful Yellow Hat thoughts: but having to wear the Black Hat forces them to think.

The order of hats should go something like:

Initial Blue – White – ?Green (if you don’t already have a potential solution for a problem) – Yellow – Black – ?Green maybe – Red – Wrap-up Blue.  You can then decide under the last Blue Hat phase whether you go for another set of discussions starting with the Initial Blue again.

Other orders of hats may make sense in particular cases, but starting with Blue Hat to do that organising of course.


  • Edward de Bono, Lateral Thinking
  • Edward de Bono, Six Thinking Hats
  • James L Adams, The Care and Feeding of Ideas
  • Thinkertoys
  • Doodle Revolution
  • Sergio Pellis & Viven Pellis, The Playful Brain
  • Stuart Brown, Play
  • Patrick Bateson & Paul Martin, Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation

Resources: Patents, Papers, Internet and Old Science Books

Espacenet and USPTO

Wikipedia: the Modern World’s Great Library of Alexandria

Old science books are a treasure…

The Five Laws of Innovation


  • Oth Law THINK !  (think laterally, think w. trigger words, think w. contradictions etc,   think with HAZOP or TRIZ, keep a notebook of your thoughts)
  • 1st Law: Copy when you can, innovate when you can’t
  • 2nd Law: Surprises = Patents, & Patents–>Monopolies–>Profits
  • 3rd Law: Don’t miss your market window
  • 4th Law: Don’t overdeliver (don’t innovate beyond the market)
  • 5th Law: Every Problem contains an opportunity –   (but watch out: maybe it’s an opportunity for someone else) 

HAZOP and Inventing Safety

A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools. Douglas Adams

Trevor Kletz was motivated by the need to prevent horrible accidents in the chemical engineering industry, but also to do so in a way which did not stop the industry making useful products.

His basic idea was convene a team look at the potential hazards of a plant and at the same time, look at the operability of the plant. He came up with a method which directs the imagination of the participants towards a useful end. They have to imagine what physical happens, but also imagine what the human operators might react. This is a creative process !

His basic to split up complex and potentially dangerous large chemical plant into manageable units, called ‘nodes’. A node is then examined for what happens as a consequence when something not intended by the designers occurs at that node. Suppose a node has an inflow of water, for example (perhaps water for cooling or diluting). Kletz then applies a series of simple guide words. In our example, what happens when that flow is:

  • increased
  • decreased
  • stopped completely
  • reversed
  • has something else in it…

For more on guide words, see below, where we look at the creativity that can be generated using more random guide words.

Any of all of these could be a problem: increased flow might lead to increased pressure and a burst pipe or vessel. Decreased flow might allow heat to build up. Flow reversal might put process chemicals in the water supply.

You then go around the plant, looking at all the nodes, at what can happen at them all, pursuing consequences. One node’s problem can of course quickly become another node’s problem.

After all this, if there are serious problems, then further brainpower needs to be applied to fix up nodes until they don’t create problems.

After all this, you may be wondering what this has go to do with inventing and innovation. First HAZOP is a team process, it is a form of brainstorming. Second, it can be applied much more widely than chemical plant. Take our example of a water flow node to be in a vehicle engine, for example. Suppose that you had a reduced water flow, the engine might overheat. But maybe you could design the engine to work even under those conditions – a handy innovation for keeping vehicles going. Suppose you had no water flow, the engine would for sure overheat. Or would it ? Could you arrange that the oil in the engine would be cooled sufficiently that the engine would be OK ?


  • Trevor Kletz, HAZOP and HAZAN
  • Doerner, The Logic of Failure
  • R R Whyte, Engineering Through Trouble

TRIZ : moving a level beyond HAZOP

Genrich Altschuller generated his system for generating new ideas from looking at thousands and thousands of patents. His basic premise is that you can take an idea and treat in different ways to arrive at new ideas. Some of the treatments will remind you very much of HAZOP. For example, the treatment ‘Reverse’ sounds a bit like ‘reverse flow’ in HAZOP.

He has the concept of the ‘Contradiction Matrix’, Sorry, mean to finish more on this soon – but you can look it up – eg. in the first reference below.


  • Genrich S Altshuller, And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared
  • Gordon Cameron, TRIZICS
  • Karen Gadd, TRIZ for Engineers
  • Dewulf, Mann, Zlotin & Zusman, Matrix 2003 Updating the TRIZ Contradiction Matrix

Random Guide Words can lead to Surprises – some of them useful !

I hope that you are by now convinced that guide words can be useful. The team behind the QI (Quite Interesting) TV program, claim that they get great ideas just by reading random books but only writing down things which you find personally find interesting. Victorian megastar scientist Michael Faraday pretty much did this too (he had ready access to random books at the bookbinding company where he worked in his early careers), reading every book he saw, but noting down only what he found ‘singular or clever’. I do the same myself, often noting down a dozen or two things that I think are really good on those blank pages that most publishers provide at the back of books (if you ever borrow a book from me, you’ll find lots of these !). In essence, this method amounts to taking random guide words. There are lots of other good reasons to read lots of books. But you don’t have to actually read lots of books to do generate new ideas. Surprisingly, it is in fact enough to simply take random words in some form and use them to spark new innovations.

One curious theme that Edward de Bono once pursued was the use of guide words that are themselves random. Words that don’t exist like ‘relk’ or ‘ogzinablatt’ or even ‘supercallifragilisticexpialidotious’ were intended to jolt your mind out of the ruts that it normally runs in, therefore leading to the creation of surprising, inventive, and potentially useful new ideas.

I am studying the use of guide words with a random components too. I think the random new words are not the best thing however. One thing I have tried and works well is the creation of two word pairs – hyphenated pairs if you like – which might act in a similar way to de Bono’s random words. Once thing I tried is simply taking the top 100 words in USA use, filtering out only verbs and nouns, and then adding in 10% terms that I thought might be useful, like ‘string’ or ‘friction’, words that are not quite as common in everyday usage.

I then put the words together in pairs, ignoring repeats and reverses of the pairs, giving a total of 1/2 x 112 x 111 = 6216 pairs. I then took a look at a few pages of the dozens of pages that this makes. Remarkably, each page gave rise to ideas: many of them ideas that are already around in some form, but some seem, at least at first glance, to be entirely new.

One page, with only 32 x 8 = 256 pairs gave, for example, 14 things that seemed to make sense. Here are four of them:

  • beat-safe: a safe opened by tapping in a secret rhythm motif with your finger. Could this work ? Yup. Anyone fancy putting something like this into the program of a Microbit-operated safe ?
  • down-wind and ahead-wind: a system for measuring the drag coefficient of buildings by noting wind direction and speed before and after the building. Could this work ? Maybe.
  • Conduct wind: could wind speed be measure by measuring changes in the conductivity lent to a stream of air by injecting ions. This has been done, in special circumstances. But could it be used somewhere else ?
  • Corner-key: Could a standard tumbler lock key be expanded to more combinations by adding a another set at right angles: like two keys welded together along their straight edges. Could this work. Yup. Useful ? Hmmmm. Maybe.

To show you more clearly how this can work, here is a panel of word pairs which I did some work on, and what I came up with on reading them – but they are not just below – they are on , but you’ll have to search for them. But before you do that, try them out yourself – see what your mind fixes on when you read them.

mountain testmountain coachmountain yardmountain beatmountain finger
survey testsurvey coachsurvey yardsurvey beatsurvey finger
winter testwinter coachwinter yardwinter beatwinter finger
refuse testrefuse coachrefuse yardrefuse beatrefuse finger
roll testroll coachroll yardroll beatroll finger
comms testcomms coachcomms yardcomms beatcomms finger
run testrun coachrun yardrun beatrun finger
screen testscreen coachscreen yardscreen beatscreen finger
gain testgain coachgain yardgain beatgain finger
hide testhide coachhide yardhide beathide finger
gold testgold coachgold yardgold beatgold finger
club testclub coachclub yardclub beatclub finger
future testfuture coachfuture yardfuture beatfuture finger
farm testfarm coachfarm yardfarm beatfarm finger
potential testpotential coachpotential yardpotential beatpotential finger
increase testincrease coachincrease yardincrease beatincrease finger
middle testmiddle coachmiddle yardmiddle beatmiddle finger
shape testshape coachshape yardshape beatshape finger
reader testreader coachreader yardreader beatreader finger
contract testcontract coachcontract yardcontract beatcontract finger
crowd testcrowd coachcrowd yardcrowd beatcrowd finger
strength teststrength coachstrength yardstrength beatstrength finger
band testband coachband yardband beatband finger
air testair coachair yardair beatair finger
water testwater coachwater yardwater beatwater finger
steam teststeam coachsteam yardsteam beatsteam finger
gas testgas coachgas yardgas beatgas finger
liquid testliquid coachliquid yardliquid beatliquid finger
solid testsolid coachsolid yardsolid beatsolid finger
vacuum testvacuum coachvacuum yardvacuum beatvacuum finger
electron testelectron coachelectron yardelectron beatelectron finger
friction testfriction coachfriction yardfriction beatfriction finger
vehicle testvehicle coachvehicle yardvehicle beatvehicle finger
light testlight coachlight yardlight beatlight finger
string teststring coachstring yardstring beatstring finger
sheet testsheet coachsheet yardsheet beatsheet finger

Here are some of the word pairs to ponder yourself (no ‘answers’ this time – just do your own thing !)

screen patternscreen machinescreen gasscreen downscreen ahead
gain patterngain machinegain gasgain downgain ahead
hide patternhide machinehide gashide downhide ahead
gold patterngold machinegold gasgold downgold ahead
club patternclub machineclub gasclub downclub ahead
future patternfuture machinefuture gasfuture downfuture ahead
farm patternfarm machinefarm gasfarm downfarm ahead
potential patternpotential machinepotential gaspotential downpotential ahead
increase patternincrease machineincrease gasincrease downincrease ahead
middle patternmiddle machinemiddle gasmiddle downmiddle ahead
shape patternshape machineshape gasshape downshape ahead
reader patternreader machinereader gasreader downreader ahead
contract patterncontract machinecontract gascontract downcontract ahead
crowd patterncrowd machinecrowd gascrowd downcrowd ahead
strength patternstrength machinestrength gasstrength downstrength ahead
band patternband machineband gasband downband ahead
air patternair machineair gasair downair ahead
water patternwater machinewater gaswater downwater ahead
steam patternsteam machinesteam gassteam downsteam ahead
gas patterngas machinegas gasgas downgas ahead
liquid patternliquid machineliquid gasliquid downliquid ahead
solid patternsolid machinesolid gassolid downsolid ahead
vacuum patternvacuum machinevacuum gasvacuum downvacuum ahead
electron patternelectron machineelectron gaselectron downelectron ahead
friction patternfriction machinefriction gasfriction downfriction ahead


1,227 QI FACTS to blow your socks off, by the QI team, compiled by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson and James Harkin.