The Prompt: What was your dad like as a kid?
The Paper: “Systematically Creating Coincidental Product Evolution: Case Studies of the Application of the Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) Method in the Chemical Industry.” Yoni Stern, Idit Biton, and Ze’ev Ma’or, Journal of Business Chemistry.
A Recipe: SIT a Chair
Jeff Rabkin. President, Creative Director and Sprint Facilitator Wowza inc.
Jan. 17, 2022
It’s been 40 years since my dad passed away. He was 50. His name was Siegfried. He hated his name. What American kid would want a German name during WWII? His friends called him Sig. His family called him Brother, a popular nickname at the time.
It’s difficult to recall details about someone after so many years of absence, so I’m left to rely on memories that have stewed in daily life for four decades. Because Sig was the one always taking the pictures, there aren’t many photographs of him. No videos or home movies either.
My dad was a curious and creative guy. A tinkerer, a putterer. One of his many interests was photography. In those days, photography was a complicated craft with a fair bit of science mixed in. Making photographs was a time-consuming and expensive hobby. Not like today. Theses days you can take a beautiful picture of a furnace filter just to remember the model number. Delivery drivers photograph packages outside your door. A three-year-old can take a perfectly exposed photograph and distribute it worldwide in milliseconds.
My dad had a little studio and darkroom in the basement. It was the perfect mid-century man-cave. He would often hide away in that dark, windowless room for hours. I remember fondly the smell of the chemicals, the red safelight, and glow-in-the-dark tape. I still have his old Grey-Lab timer, the tips of its hands coated in radium so you could watch time pass in pitch darkness. I loved seeing pictures appear like magic, sloshing around in wet trays under the red light.
Before we could enter the darkroom, we had to wait outside the door until the picture was in the fixer long enough to desensitize it to light. Inside, when it was time to expose another sheet of paper in the enlarger or load a reel of film, he’d say, “Are you in or out?” If I stayed, I’d have to wait through the developer, the stop bath, and the fixer until the lights came back on and I could return to the TV (when TV shows ran on a set schedule this was an important time calculation).
My dad was a patient teacher who taught me everything he knew about photography: Ansel Adams’ Zone System, the attributes of different film types, dry mounting, and matt-cutting. He taught me patience and how to see. He didn't just take and make photographs; he studied the masters: Weston, Winnegrand, Suskind, Cartier-Bresson, White, Arbus, and, especially, Adams. He loved cameras, too. He had a German Rolloflex and a Leica. He always wanted a Swedish Hasselblad, the camera John Glenn took to the moon, but opted for the more economical Japanese Bronica instead.
Photography is about noticing, observing, and looking. The word photography means “painting with light.” When you had to manually set exposures and process translucent strips of film through which you projected images on light-sensitive paper, seeing was intentional and active. The stakes were higher. Carelessness or lack of skill led to delayed disappointment and money down the drain. Literally.
My father had a difficult childhood. His love of photography must have been a useful coping strategy. A reason to look elsewhere. A way to leave parts of his life out of frame.
His mother died when he was about seven. He never talked about her. It wasn’t until after he died that I learned that she’d committed suicide. Likely postpartum depression following the birth of my uncle. Mental health wasn’t something people talked about. Suicide was especially taboo. Now, we think of an openness to discuss suicide as progressive, yet there’s plenty of research that concludes suicide is socially contagious.
Losing your mother during the Depression was a double depression for my dad and his brothers. Left with three little boys, my grandfather did what I’m sure he thought was best. He married his spinster bookkeeper. A vile woman whom my father despised. The Hag, as she’s known by me and my two sisters, focused much of her cruelty on Sig, the affable middle child.
Sig wasn’t an academic achiever like his two brothers; one of whom became a doctor, the other a lawyer. He was the creative one. Friendly; approachable; unpretentious; kind and loyal. He was a good-natured teaser who people genuinely liked.
Loyalty didn't serve my father well. Returning from serving in Korea, his father and stepmother had moved to Florida. The Hag had thrown away all his possessions: momentos, photographs, yearbooks. Everything. All they left him was the expectation to work in the family real estate business. The work didn’t really suit him, and the family dysfunction was toxic. He regretted his loyalty-driven compliance but I don't remember him specifically complaining about it. My mother took care of that.
He used to joke that maybe he could make a living taking pictures of kids on a pony. Then, one day, my dad came home with a 5x7 photograph of his portly middle-aged self wearing a kid-sized straw hat, standing over the top of a small pony. At the apartment complex my dad managed, a man with a pony stopped by the office for permission to solicit for business. He agreed in exchange for the picture.
Shortly before the cancer took him, he was beginning to reinvent his professional life. He bought an old building in Augusta, Kentucky, a picturesque little town with one of the last operating ferries on the Ohio River. From the ferry, the town looked just as it must have in the 1800s. There’s a house in town with a plaque that claims to be where Stephen Foster wrote his classic song, ”My Old Kentucky Home.”
Back then, Augusta’s biggest claim to fame was being the hometown of Rosemary Clooney. Rosemary was an internationally famous jazz singer. Her brother, Nick, was a much-admired TV personality and news anchor in Cincinnati but lived in town. Still does. Nick’s son, George, grew up there. The building my dad took over was a 200-year-old vacant, dilapidated brick storefront that was the original general store.
After he bought the property, some of the locals were pissed off. My dad told me that others had tried to buy the property, but the seller agreed to sell it to him because he didn't haggle over the price. The point of a negotiation isn’t to get the
lowest price. It’s to get a fair price.
He renovated the building and turned it into a photography gallery, not to display his own photographs but to exhibit work by local photographers he admired. It wasn’t a particularly good business idea. But that didn't really matter after all.
My father valued a broad breadth of competency over a narrow depth of excellence. He was as comfortable and respectful of an uneducated laborer as a wealthy businessman or professional. He had an appetite for junk food; Skyline Chili and White Castle hamburgers. He sometimes left the house wearing plaids with stripes.
Growing up in a creative home is a wonderful gift. You learn that you can try things without a commitment to keep doing them. You don’t need to be a good artist or craftsman to enjoy art and craft. Making is more satisfying than buying. Doing things yourself and being resourceful is incredibly valuable. If you’re creative and competent, you can live better than people with more money who aren't.
Most people address problems by reaching outside for solutions. My father was the sort of creative problem solver who could draw on the resources he had on hand. I call it Profitable Creative Laziness (PCL).
There's a scene in Breaking Bad where Jesse and Walt are stranded in the desert, with no water and a dead battery. The generator is out of gas. First, they try hand-cranking the generator. That takes hours in the hot sun. Not a good solution when you have no water. It didn't work. They need a battery. Can they make one? They have a meth lab full of chemicals and an RV full of equipment. Fortunately, one of the resources on hand in this closed world of theirs is Walt, a genius chemist. Walt figures out how to make a battery from stuff in the RV. The motor starts, and the series continues.
The idea of searching for solutions with what you have is a core concept in the Systematic Inventive Thinking framework (SIT). SIT approaches creative problem solving by narrowing the creative constraints around the product. It’s product-focused innovation. Creative ideas are generated by staying within the confines of a closed world. Inside the box, not outside the box, thinking.
Innovation emerges from the product, the processes, skills, and resources already
available to the company. New ideas that spring from this systematic approach to creativity can then be evaluated on the basis of marketability and feasibility.
The Paper: Systematically Creating Coincidental Product Evolution: Case Studies of the Application of the Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) Method in the Chemical Industry.
In this paper, authors Yoni Stern, Idit Biton, and Ze’ev Ma’or tell stories that demonstrate the tools used in the SIT framework and how they lead to innovations that would be unlikely to emerge from market-centered or human-centered design.
The paper outlines the three approaches most companies use to generate new product ideas: surveying competitors, market research, and new technologies. They contend that competitive products aren't likely to generate ideas for undifferentiated products without another process of innovation applied to them. Market research is useful to guide incremental improvement but rarely yields innovative ideas that are both feasible and sufficiently differentiated from the competition. As for new technologies, this can be an effective strategy for new products, provided you have tech that nobody else can access and a way to protect it. They propose Systematic Inventive Thinking as a fourth strategy, “...using existing products as a basis for ideas. Based on internal company resources and expertise, it can serve as a strong differentiating factor between companies that know how to utilize it and those who do not.”
From an analysis of the creative evolution of thousands of products, the inventors of SIT found five patterns that form the basis of a set of thinking tools used to build new ideas from existing products. They call this approach Function Follow Form.
“Instead of identifying a ‘function’ or need and then creating a product accordingly, one first manipulates the existing product and then considers how the new form could be of benefit.”
Chemists are practical, systematic thinkers. So I can only imagine how excited the readers of The Journal of Business Chemistry must have been to learn a systematic way to innovate in a challenging category.
The paper describes how the Israeli cosmetics company, Ahava, successfully used three of the SIT tools, Multiplication, Task Unification, and Attribute Dependency, to create three unique marketable products in a category most people would assume has no new territory to explore.
The other case study I particularly enjoyed was the story of a laundry soap from Vitco/Unilever. They used Subtraction, a method where you remove a key component of your product. They listed the components of the product and then subtracted the active ingredient. What can you do with a laundry soap that has no soap? You create a whole new product category. That's what you can do.
Most businesses have little to no formal processes for generating new ideas. They work hard and invest in product improvement, obsess over production and marketing and pray that someone doesn't come along and knock them off their position with something genuinely innovative. Here’s a good idea: take a break from the daily grind to SIT and think.
Recipe for Making Stupid Stuff: SIT a Chair
One of the tools in Systematic Inventive Thinking is Division. You take a product or its components and rearrange them in time or space. SIT makes me think of a chair.
Tools and Supplies:
An old wooden chair
Clamps, nails, and screws
Go to a junk shop and find an old wooden chair.
Cut it up.
Glue it back together in a different way.