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Morphological Analysis – A problem solving method to aid the idea generation phase

Morphological analysis is simply an ordered way of looking at things.

~Fritz Zwicky

Morphological analysis was invented by Fritz Zwicky, a Swedish astrophysicist who used morphological analysis to solve a lot of incoherent aerospace and astronomical problems. He used it to develop jet and rocket propulsion systems, in the classification of the astrophysical object, and in other complex aspects like the legal aspect of colonizing space.

Morphological analysis is all about breaking a seemingly complex thing into different fundamental units, eliminating inconsistencies, and then creating a link between the remaining units to solve a problem.

If you are someone who has dismantled toys in childhood, this method is for you. You will get a chance to dismantle products/processes without even physically dismantling them. And the fun is going to be almost the same.

General Morphological Analysis over Mathematical Modeling

In crooked problems where there are multiple governing factors, using a mathematical model that involves breaking the problem into different components and dropping trivial components, fails. The trivial components which were considered insignificant during the analysis may become significant, and the model may collapse.

In contrast, General Morphological Analysis (GMA) is a sound method to deal with such non-quantifiable problems. Every component of a problem gets considered and thoroughly investigated without putting it in the bracket of insignificant. In essence, GMA turns a mess into structured problems.

One of the greatest mistakes that can be made when dealing with a mess is to carve off part of the mess, treat it as a problem and then solve it as a puzzle — ignoring its links with other aspects of the mess.

~~Michael Pidd

Applications of General Morphological Analysis

The applications of GMA are far wider. From engineering design to policy analysis, from product design to scenario development, the morphological analysis could be used. When used as a brainstorming technique, it could help in the idea generation phase and can help in new patent ideas, product ideas, and the like.

Zwicky used it to solve general problems of astronomy — Observation of celestial phenomena, designing a new telescope, and engineering design to develop propulsion systems. In recent times researchers have been found using the method in organization design and transformation and scenario modeling.

William J. Dartnall of the University of Technology Sydney used GMA for innovative mechanical design.  Álvarez & Ritchey, in their research article, Applications of General Morphological Analysis, give numerous examples from 80 published applications of GMA.

How to Perform Morphological Analysis?

We can divide the complete morphological analysis into four different steps, which are as follows:

Problem (identifying and defining the parameters)

The morphological analysis investigates all the possible sets of parameters, a wicked problem. Hence, the first step is defining the problem in a clear and concise manner and breaking it down into different parameters it has and the possible values of those parameters.

Constructing the Zwicky Box

The next step involves the construction of an n-dimensional matrix. The numbers of columns in the matrix are equal to the number of parameters of a wicked problem. Cells under each column contain the value of a parameter.

For example, consider a publisher contemplating various parameters before publishing a book. Let’s say his problem complex has five parameters: bind type, cover type, size, paper color, and interior, which have 3,3,2,2,2 values, respectively. This will lead to a Zwicky box of the below type having 3*3*2*2*2=72 cells, with each cell having five parameters — one value from each column. For example, Saddle Stitch, digest, hardcover, colored, cream.

Constructing the Zwicky Box

Cross Consistency Assessment

This is the vital step of the GMA. CCA helps you reduce the pairs of combinations in a Zwicky Box which are inconsistent. For example, in our case, the combinations where colored and paperbacks appear together and where spiral and paperback appear together could be nixed from the final set of analyses. CCA can reduce a Zwicky Box to 90% or even in some problem complex to 99%. In essence, CCA acts as a garbage detector in a Zwicky Box.

There are three principal types of inconsistencies involved in the cross-consistency assessment: purely logical contradictions (i.e., “contradictions in terms”); empirical constraints (i.e., relationships judged to be highly improbable or implausible on practical, empirical grounds), and normative constraints (although these must be used with great care, and clearly designated as such).

Input/Output

After you have reduced the Zwicky Box to consistent combinations, you move ahead with the final step of the analysis, where you lock a particular variable(input) under a parameter and find the number of combinations that exist.

Constructing the Zwicky Box

For example, in our problem, we locked paperback and asked Zwicky Box to help us find possible combinations. The blue cells are corresponding outputs. You can even have multiple inputs. For example, in Zwicky Box (2) we locked Paperback, white.

Constructing the Zwicky Box

Consider exploring this research paper where Norris Brothers’ used the GMA to design the historical Bluebird K4 boat, the record-breaking Bluebird CN7 car, and the Bluebird K7 hydroplane.

Morphological Analysis during the idea generation phase of innovation is something of high interest in the Patenting field. MA enables the innovator to systematize the creativity process and optimize the results by delivering quantitatively as many solutions as possible.

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