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Fill in the boxes to think out of the box

“I feel that I have finally found the philosopher’s stone,” the US-based Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky once said. Zwicky created the concept of morphological thinking, which indeed allows us to play with the elements related to an innovation challenge we’re working on. As such, morphological analysis and creativity can support us in our efforts to turn common base elements into something special in line with alchemical principles. Today, let’s get to know the creativity tool Morphological Matrix — what it is, how it works, why it’s useful, and what are common pitfalls of using it.

What is the Morphological Matrix?

Morphological Matrix is a classic creativity technique that originates with the work of Fritz Zwicky, the creator of the concept of “morphological analysis.” Morphological analysis concerns itself with the arrangement of elements or parts and how they conform to create a more valuable whole or Gestalt. Thereby, the nature of the elements can relate to a physical system (e.g., shape, material, functionality), a social system (human emotions, business strategies), or a logical system (e.g., word forms, creative actions).

Morphological Matrix is one application of morphological thinking (and, if you like, the “creative extension” of morphological analysis). Thereby, we first create a comprehensive table — the Morphological Matrix — of stimuli related to an innovation challenge we’re working on. Then, we combine those stimuli to generate novel ideas. Put simply, we fill in the boxes to think out of the box.

How does this creativity technique work?

If you want to apply this simple yet powerful creativity technique, then follow these four steps:

  1. First, review your Final Challenge. For example, suppose after more than one and a half years of the Covid-19 pandemic, the members in your team are tired of the endless stream of online meetings, and you’re looking for ideas for the challenge: “How to make online meetings more entertaining?”
  2. Then, choose at least five categories relevant to your challenge. Use these as column headers of a table. In our example, you might select the categories “meeting things,” “online meetings,” “business actions,” “entertainment,” and “wild card.” (While the matrix categories should typically relate to the challenge topic, it sometimes is beneficial to have one unrelated category that can add spice to the idea mix, such as Wild Card, Weird Phenomena, or Creative Actions.)
  3. Next, for each category (column header), list as many related elements as possible. For example, you might jot down the elements “play music,” “have drinks,” “have food,” “play a game,” or “tell a joke” in the entertainment category. Under the column header “Wild Card,” you’re invited to leave some unusual, wild, and unorthodox elements, such as “be too late,” “bottoms up,” or “impromptu talk.” 
  4. Once you’ve created the Morphological Matrix, use it to generate new raw ideas by combining different elements to form raw ideas. For example, one raw idea could read “Play music while meeting members wait for admission in the waiting room,” or “Have drinks during the online meetings,” and let everyone do a ‘bottoms up‘ at the start of the session.”

Why is Morphological Matrix a useful creativity technique?

Morphological Matrix is commonly used for product innovation cases. However, true to Zwicky’s abstract, broad interpretation of the concept of morphological thinking, it works equally well for the entire spectrum of modern innovation types, such as process and service innovation, solution and customer experience design, business model, and social innovation, to name but a few. Focusing on a different innovation type simply requires you to consider adequate other categories (e.g., materials won’t be relevant in a strategy innovation case). Still, it leaves the essential mechanics of the technique in place. 

One key benefit of this creativity tool is that filling out the different elements of the matrix makes ideators aware of the multitude of different features, functions, shapes, users, and other aspects related to the challenge. Hence, at Thinkergy, if we bring this tool into play while running an Ideation session, we do it early on in the flow of activities. This is because the listed matrix elements tend to linger on in the minds of the ideators, who might subconsciously draw upon them later on in the Ideation while working on other creativity tools.

Moreover, because it is rooted in Zwicky’s morphological analysis, Morphological Matrix is also a creativity technique that the more analytical-minded types enjoy (in our innovator profiling method TIPS, these are in particular the Theorist, the Technocrat, and the Systematizer).

What are the downsides of applying this creativity tool?

Unfortunately, Morphological Matrix comes not only with benefits but also has several disadvantages that most ideators (and some of their session facilitators) are unaware of: 

  • A common mistake that ideators make when applying this tool is that they want to combine many matrix elements into one overly complex idea. The result is often “feature creep,” making the idea more complex, error-prone, and expensive. So, it’s important to emphasize that typically, we combine only 1-3 elements into a raw idea and aim to produce many, many of these smaller ideas (and not only one or a few “feature creep ideas”). 
  • Many ideators also wrongly believe that while using this tool, the emphasis lies on creating the matrix. However, the matrix with its categories and elements is just a stepping stone for producing novel raw ideas. So, at the end of the exercise, we count the number of raw ideas that a team has generated, not the matrix elements.
  • Speaking about the matrix elements: The more elements get listed in each Morphological Matrix category, the more powerful it becomes to inspire ideas. Interestingly, to determine this idea potential of a Morphological Matrix that a team created, we don’t just add up the number of elements in each category, but we can multiply them. This is because, in theory, we can combine each element with each other element. As such, the more columns (categories) and lines (elements) a Morphological Matrix contains, the richer the number of theoretically possible combinations and possible ideas. 
    • For example, a matrix comprising 5 categories with 10 elements each translates into 10x10x10x10x10 = 100,000 possible ideas. Double the number of elements per column, and you end up with 3.2 million possible combinations (=ideas). Of course, many combinations are dull or don’t make much sense, and “theoretical combinations” hidden in the matrix don’t make an idea if they are not thought through for practical ‘real life’ applications by an ideator and put to life by writing them down as tangible ideas. (So, better beware of authors who promise to turn you into a million-ideas-creator if you buy their book, and the only creativity tool you find inside is a variant of Morphological Matrix).
  • Last but not least, it’s important to point out that Morphological Matrix isn’t the most productive creativity technique. This is because it takes a team ca. 15-20 minutes to create the matrix in the first place, and then they need another 10-15 minutes to turn the elements into ideas. Moreover, as looking for interesting element combinations in the matrix takes some time, the overall number of ideas is lower than with other tools. For example, a team of 10 ideators might create 35-45 raw ideas in the time mentioned above spans. In the same amount of time, they might produce double as many ideas while applying other creativity techniques. 
    • Suppose the overall time availability for an Ideation session is generous. In that case, I prefer to nevertheless apply Morphological Matrix as one of the creativity tools in the session because ideators subconsciously may recall some of the matrix elements later on while working on other tools. This cross-fertilization justifies the time invested in applying the tool.

Conclusion: Create an "idea box" to unbox your thinking

“There is only one way in which a person acquires a new idea: by the combination or association of two or more ideas he already has into a new juxtaposition in such a manner as to discover a relationship among them of which he was not previously aware,” noted the US writer Francis A. Cartier. While I believe there are many other ways for a person to acquire an idea, Morphological Matrix undoubtedly allows us to become aware of non-obvious relationships between specific elements that we listed under the different categories of the matrix. So, when you need fresh ideas for a challenge (and have enough time at hand), consider creating a morphological matrix, then combine matrix elements to form raw ideas. After all, as Apple’s former CEO Steve Jobs once said: “Creativity is just connecting things.”

  • Morphological Matrix is one of the tools that we adapted for the Ideation-stage of our X-IDEA innovation method and toolbox. You can also learn how to properly use the tool in one of our 2- and 3-day-long X-IDEA innovation training courses.
  • Contact us if you’re interested in our innovation training programs or if you want us to inspire your team or company with our creativity and innovation know-how.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2021