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Subsystem vs super system

Updated: 10/25/2022
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Nine windows creativity technique offers a practical framework to consider a range of future opportunitiesby Khalid Ahmed

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. 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 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 (supersystem, 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 gridOn 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) supersystem, system, subsystem (see the illustration above right for an example). Step 2 - Fill in the center boxIn the center box, put a brief description or picture related to the innovation opportunity or challenge. Step 3 - Identify the supersystem and subsystemIn the present dimension, the middle column, fill in the supersystem and subsystem boxes above and below the center box. The supersystem 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 futureNow 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 gridLast, fill 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 opportunityAfter 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 with the permission of Breakthrough Management Group International.

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