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How to Generate Alternatives Using Zwicky’s Morphological Box

Not every analyst or red teamer is spontaneously creative. For those who occasionally struggle to generate new ideas, Zwicky’s morphological box can help. Even analysts who fancy themselves to be wildly inventive can benefit from the approach.
      Zwicky’s technique is simple: (1) decompose a system into its functional subsystems; (2) brainstorm alternatives that achieve each subsystem’s function; and (3) combine the separate alternatives in new ways, subsection by subsection. Some of the combinations will be uninteresting, some will be infeasible, but–with a little imagination and luck–some will be both interesting and feasible.1
      A simple “box” should help illustrate the technique. Gibson, Scherer, and Gibson, for example, decompose a notional “personal transportation system” into four subsystems or subsectors: suspension, propulsion, guidance, and the passenger compartment. They then brainstorm a variety of alternatives for achieving the suspension subsector: air ducts, air cushion, magnetic field, and so on. A real team would brainstorm alternatives for each subsector and combine these to achieve a candidate set of system solutions.
      Applying the technique successfully requires the team to consider carefully the process they use to structure the subsector framework and select the alternatives. On this count, Gibson, Scherer, and Gibson emphasize several points of practice:

  • The subsectors should be complete–that is, taken together, they should define the complete system.
  • The subsectors should express functions not technologies.
  • The team should brainstorm alternatives for each subsector separately to avoid prefiguring final combinations.
  • When considering the combinations of subsector alternatives, the team should not dismiss unlikely out of hand but should seek to make “even the unusual combinations work.”2

      A multidisciplinary, open-minded team will also help ensure success. A homogenous team will tend to think along predictable paths, while the presence of overly critical team members will tend to discourage the flow of creative ideas. Of course, these concepts apply to most red teams.
      It is worth noting as well that the technique is not limited to issues of technology. Analysts may just as easily apply the approach to conceptual and operational issues. In these cases, the analyst or team would first decompose the problem into conceptual or operational subsectors rather than technological subsystems.  
      Many variations of the morphological box technique exist. For instance, the concept informs Warfield’s options field/options profile approach.3 Michael Michalko describes a similar technique in his book Thinkertoys and attributes its use to DaVinci. Dym and Little apply the method in their book Engineering Design and refer to it as a “morphological chart.” This is a partial list, and analysts may wish to pursue some or all of these variations, particularly the options field/options profile technique, which differs noticeably from the others. That said, the basic technique is straightforward and analysts will probably benefit more from hands-on practice than from pursuing the large set of closely related variations.
      As always, a good analyst will match the technique to the problem. The morphological box is not suited to every phase of red teaming or to every type of problem. It works best when the analyst or red team needs to expand its suite of alternatives. In nearly every case, the morphological box will yield useful alternatives more quickly and efficiently than ad hoc, brute-force brainstorming.

  1. Zwicky explains the technique fully in his 1967 book, New Methods of Thought and Procedure. []
  2. See Gibson, Scherer, and Gibson, How to Do Systems Analysis, pp. 137-137. The quote in the final bullet is found on p. 138 []
  3. Gibson, Scherer, and Gibson relate the morphological box technique to the options field/options profile approach as does White in his chapter “Systems Design” in Sage and Rouse’s Handbook of Systems Engineering and Management. []