Friday, December 3, 2010

Nine Windows

Dr. Phil Samuel

Nine Windows is a technique that helps you examine the innovation opportunity across the dimensions of time (past, current, future) and space (super-system, system, sub-system). For instance, say you’re designing metal utensils that can be used on an airplane to eat, but not to use as a weapon. Instead of innovating the utensils themselves, you could focus your efforts on the raw materials that make up the utensils (sub-system), or even on the surrounding environment (super-system).

The core of Nine Windows is a simple grid consisting of nine boxes, or windows. Filling in the boxes provides eight additional perspectives on the problem you’ve identified, and helps you decide how and at what level to apply innovation. As such, you should leverage Nine Windows early in your project to better scope the innovation opportunity.


Scenario: To illustrate Nine Windows, let’s say we want to grow Pitaya, a plant that produces the unusual-looking, but tasty and highly nutritious “dragon fruit.” Pitaya is fond of tropical, semi-dry environments, but we want to farm it in Colorado. So, our goal is to determine a way to cultivate the Pitaya plant in a colder climate.

The dragon fruit and its antioxidant properties are beginning to capture the attention of mainstream companies including Snapple, Tropicana and Sobe.

1. Prepare grid. On a white board or flip chart, draw nine boxes arranged in a 3x3 matrix. Label the bottom row of boxes (from left to right): Past, Present, Future. Label the far left boxes (from top to bottom): Super-system, System, Sub-system.

2. Fill in center box. In the center box, put a brief description or a picture related to the innovation opportunity or Job To Be Done (JTBD). In our example, the distinctive dragon fruit may be the first thing that comes to mind. However, since we want to make the Pitaya plant more tolerant to colder climates, we’ll put that in the center box instead of the fruit.

You can use words or images, or a combination of both, in the Nine Windows.

3. Identify super-system and sub-system. In the present dimension (middle column), fill in the super-system and sub-system boxes above and below the center box. You can write (or draw) more than one item in each 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?” For the Pitaya plant, the super-system consists of the soil, the climate and surrounding trees, which the plant often uses as support.
• The sub-system 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?” The Pitaya sub-system includes the plant’s fruit, leaves and roots.

Nine Windows is also known as system operator because it enables you to see how a system operates at both the macro (super-system) and micro (sub-system) levels.

4. Determine past and future. For the system (center row), 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:

• What did the system or object look like before its current incarnation, and what will it 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 JTBD, and what future solution could be developed to address the same JTBD?
• How can the system’s inputs be modified to eliminate, reduce or prevent a harmful function, event or condition from impacting the output? Or, how can the system’s output be modified in a corrective or reactive way?

In addition to enabling you to better scope the innovation opportunity, Nine Windows can be used to generate solution ideas, to determine what resources are available at each level, or to review contradictions inherent in the particular dimensions that could affect the system.

5. Complete grid. Last, fill in the four corners – the past and future states of the super-system and the sub-system. You can complete these four boxes in any order. Although you don’t have to fill in all the corners, it’s worth it to spend a few minutes trying. If you get stuck, take a short break and return to the problem with fresh eyes. The answers will depend on the specifics of the super-system and sub-system you defined in step 3, as well as the approach you took to the temporal dimension in step 4.

6. Reassess opportunity. After filling in the Nine Windows, reassess the innovation opportunity to determine if you should focus your efforts at the system, sub-system or super-system level, and in which temporal dimension.

Dr. Phil Samuel is the Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) for BMGI, a management-consulting firm specializing in performance excellence and innovation. An integral part of BMGI’s management team since 2005, Phil brings more than a decade of experience to his role as CIO, helping clients in-source creativity and increase organic growth potential. Phil is a dynamic speaker and published author, whose most recent credits include the books, “Design for Lean Six Sigma: A Holistic Approach to Design and Innovation” and “The Innovator’s Toolkit: 50+ Techniques for Predictable and Sustainable Organic Growth.”

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