8. Alternatives

8. Alternatives

Special Web Update – 36 Alternatives Video

This video can help you get a quick overview and understand how the Alternatives were derived. The 15 Alternatives in the rest of the chapter is a condensed version of the 36 Alternatives.

15 Alternatives

15 Alternatives Grid





to Stable




The Alternatives Grid describes every possible way to satisfy a single Condition.

Each box in the grid represents a general way or approach to achieving a goal or result. Five columns and three rows means there are at least 15 ways to achieve any goal.

Each box in the Alternatives Grid is a general description. It describes a type of Alternative. There can be many examples of each type. All the possible Alternatives can be categorized into one of the 15 types.

The 15 Alternatives describe all the possible ways to achieve a goal because they are all the basic approaches.

6 Spacial DirectionsTo understand how you can describe every possible combination think about giving directions to go somewhere. If you give someone directions you can break all the steps into six basic movements: up, down, left, right, forwards and backwards.

By combining the six basic movements, you can travel anywhere. The same concept works for Alternatives. The 15 Alternatives describe every possible type of Alternative. It’s a framework for solving every problem.

Just because there are 15 types doesn’t mean that is the limit. Each box only describes a general type. There could be lots of individual ways that fit in each box. There could be many Continuous Stable Alternatives or Many Single Direct Alternatives.

The boxes of the Alternatives Grid describe every way. This helps you find the ways you can use. Knowing there are at least 15 Alternatives helps you find really good solutions.

If you can’t think of something for a box then there’s a solution you overlooked. Sometimes one of the Alternatives isn’t possible using current technology. You can still describe the basics of how it will work and watch for the technology to become available.

Ways to Use the Alternatives Grid

There are three main ways to use the Alternatives Grid.

  1. Find a good Alternative
  2. Find all the Alternatives
  3. Find an untapped innovation

Sometimes you just want to get something done. When any good Alternative will satisfy your criteria we call that problem solving or solution finding. The way you were trying wasn’t working; so, you need a different choice. Use the Alternatives Grid to find an option you like.

When solution finding you don’t need to look at every Alternative. Just because there are 15 boxes doesn’t mean you must find something for every box. If you find a really good Alternative, use it. If you need another, the Alternatives Grid is always there to guide you to more options.

When making a plan you might want to make sure you have the best choice and Alternatives in case you need to change your plan. The Alternatives Grid is a great tool for planning. Use it to find the best choice. Because it describes all the possible Alternatives, it helps you make sure to consider every option.

If any of the boxes in the Alternatives Grid is empty there is definitely something you missed. This could be a breakthrough waiting to happen. Since you have described what the box must contain you have the upper hand in finding it first.


ScalesThe 3 rows of the Alternatives Grid are called Scales. The three Scales are: Single, Multiple, and Continuous. We use the symbols 1, M, and either ∞ or C to represent the scales.

Each of the three scales are functionally distinct from each other. Having only one of something is very different from having more than one. Doing something in one step is often very different from breaking it up into multiple steps. You can’t step over a hole in two steps. You either step over it in one step or fall in. One is functionally distinct from multiple and continuous.

Most things fit in the many or multiple scale. Once you have a quantity of something there isn’t a Functional Distinction between a small amount or a large amount. The big difference happens when you have all of something.

Having all of something is very different than having many. One type of continuous is all. When you have all of something you can do things that are not possible when you have many or even most of it. Having all of something is different from many and it is different from having the one and only. Continuous also means no divisions or breaks, it’s smooth. Continuous is the difference between a digital gauge and a dial with a needle.

Breaking things into these categories helps you think about how they function, and what can be done. These Functional Distinctions are important for finding solutions.


SingleThere is a Single Alternative for each of the directions. Words used to describe Single are: single, one, once, only, exclusive, or unique.

Apply Single to: who, what, why, where, when, and with.

Single Element: Object, Begin State, End State, Action, Tool, Condition, Resource

Think of a Single: person, purpose, place, use, time, piece, or step.

Single use, disposable, single material, single color, plastic utensilsIllustration 10: Single use, disposable

Disposable plastic eating utensils are Single use. These are also a Single piece and made from a Single material. Each of these have a Single purpose.


One of a kind shoes

Illustration 11: One of a kind shoes

Custom made items are one of a kind. These items are exclusive. When used to make an item unique, Single can increase value.

Shorts, single color

Illustration 12: Elastic waistband, one piece shorts

The elastic band in the waist hold up one pair of shorts. The shorts are one-piece.

Ford Model T, single color

Illustration 13: Ford Model T One Color

The Ford Model T came in one color, black, to simplify manufacturing and reduce cost.



MultipleMultiple or many is more than one. Multiple provides flexibility with limits, choices with structure.

Multiple items usually have quantities you can count. Multiple can be many of the same item or many related items. Many can also mean parts. So instead of a single piece it has many pieces or many steps to perform a task.

Multiple applies to who, what, why, where, when, and with.

Think of multiple choice, pieces, steps, customers, locations, prices, or models.


Illustration 14: Menu

Menus provide multiple choices. There are options with limits. There is flexibility but structure.



Cars, multiple colors

Illustration 15: Cars in multiple colors

Multiple colors of cars are offered by manufacturers. This provides variety without complexity.Most cars have options for different components. This allows flexibility for customers but control for manufacturers. Cars carry multiple passengers.

Belts, multiple colors

Illustration 16: Belts are used on multiple pants

A belt can be worn with many different pairs of pants.A reversible belt is more than one color.

Adjustable sizes fit many waists.


ContinuousContinuous is the extreme in any direction, not just more but the most possible.

Continuous items are measured by volume or weight if they are measured at all. Words used to describe continuous are:

  • all
  • any
  • every
  • none
  • always
  • forever
  • whenever
  • never
  • everyone
  • anyone
  • whoever
  • no one

Continuous applies to who, what, where, when, why, and with. All 7 Elements of an Outcome apply to continuous. Continuous Scale is similar to Stable Direction

Buffet, all you can eat

Illustration 17: All You Can Eat Buffet

An all-you-can-eat buffet has many examples of continuous.

  • All you can eat
  • No waiting
  • No servers
  • Anything on the menu.


Skype, free chat, voice, video

Illustration 18: Skype, free chat, voice and video conferencing

Skype provides free chat, voice and video conferences between users and unlimited long distance phone calls for a fixed price.

Unisex Restroom Sign

Illustration 19: Handicap Unisex Bathroom

Restroom is accessible to anyone. The sign can be read by people who can see and cannot. Unisex so anyone can use it.

Vinyl Siding

Illustration 20: Vinyl siding,
never paint

The color of vinyl siding is forever. You never need to paint it.

Custom Made T-shirt

Illustration 21: Custom made T-Shirt

Custom made items allow you to have anything. If the product is information, like the design on the T-Shirt, you can make unlimited copies.

Wireless Headset

Illustration 22: Wireless headset

Wireless headset has no wires and requires no hands to use. If it is used with a mobile phone it can be taken anywhere. A headset allows you to talk while driving so it’s anytime.

Tattoo, forever, always

Illustration 23: Tattoo , always, forever

A tattoo is an example of continuous in several ways. It is permanent, always, and forever.


DirectionsThe 5 columns of the Alternatives Grid are called Directions. The five directions are: Direct, Indirect, Keep Stable, Make Stable, and Return to Stable. Like the 3 scales the 5 Directions are functionally distinct from each other.

The symbols we use for the Directions only hint at the true functionality of each Direction. The first three, Direct +, Indirect -, and Stable = cover the ideas of more, less, and same. More, less, and same are obviously functionally distinct from each other. Makes Stable → and Return to Stable ~ are functionally distinct versions of Stable.

Understanding the differences of the Directions involves learning an aspect of multidimensional thinking. When thinking in only one dimension we have opposites of each other such as more and less, + and -. Clearly more and less are opposites of each other. But stable, =, is the opposite of change. So Stable, =, is the opposite of both more +, and less -.

Stable can also be thought of as zero (0). If you add or subtract zero from anything it does not change. You can achieve a stable position by making a change or by undoing a change. In that way the change is zero.

Makes Stable starts at a State then ends in the final Stable State. Return to Stable starts at a State then changes and finally returns to the original State. Most often we think of the initial State as being the desired State but it could be any State.

Each of the 15 Alternatives apply to all of the 7 Elements. It’s also helpful to think of the 6 Ws: Who, What, Where, Why, When, and With. Who uses it, buys it, decides to use it, and wants it? What is it being done by or to? Where is it being done? When is it being done? With which products, people, or processes is it being used? Why use it? Why is how to decide the Alternative to use.


DirectIt directly satisfies the condition. You can also think of direct as positive such as doing something versus not doing something. Also think of add, increase, or more. If the Direct Function is stopped the desired condition stops.

Paper Clip

Illustration 24: Paper Clip Directly Holds Paper

Paper clips directly hold the paper together. If it is removed the pieces come apart. Also a paper clip is added to the paper.

Heater, directly adds heat

Illustration 25: Heater directly warms

Heater directly makes you warm. It adds heat.


IndirectIndirect is just what it seems like. It’s the opposite of the direct approach. Think words such as remove, decrease, and other.

Indirect is very flexible. The direct approach makes the goal happen when you use it. Indirect could make it happen by not doing something. Or it could take the goal away by doing something.

But indirect doesn’t apply just to Actions. It could apply to things you use. For instance you want paint that sticks to a surface better. Instead of looking at the paint, look at the surface. Maybe you can do something to the surface to make the paint stick better. Or to the brush or to the room you are painting in.

A very powerful use of Indirect is to check your goal. Some times we state our goal in a way that is limiting. An example is The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for “preventing bad medicine from being sold”. That sounds like a good goal but is that really what you want?

Isn’t the real goal to promote good medicine? If you set up your Alternatives Grid to “promote good medicine” you suddenly have 12 boxes full of good medicine instead of trying to stop bad medicines. See how that could be much more productive?

But sometimes you could use the indirect goal for another purpose. If you were looking for ways to heat food the indirect is to make it cold. Can you see value in making food cold?

Look for all indirect Alternatives including:

  • Objects
  • Actions
  • Resources
  • Begin State
  • Tools
  • End State
  • Conditions


Bug zapper

Illustration 26: Attract bugs to zapper instead of repelling with chemicals

Instead of using toxic chemicals to repel bugs, attract them to a bug zapper.



Illustration 27: Make water not stick

Instead of drying dishes, make water not stick.

Indirect Junk Mail

Illustration 28: Junk mail fuel

Instead of stopping junk mail, get more then use it as free fuel.

Tiger Ball

Illustration 29: Cage keeps tigers out

Tiger Cage

Illustration 30: Cage keeps tiger in

Both cages protect the people from tigers. Each has different benefits.



Keep StableKeep the desired condition. If you start with what you want you want to keep it. Ways to keep the desired goal fit the description of Stable.

Stable options are described with words such as:

  • prevent
  • hold
  • keep
  • protect
  • store
  • save
  • avoid
  • secure
  • ensure
  • restrict
  • lock
  • maintain

The Stable Alternative can apply to all 7 Elements.

  • Actions, keep happening or prevent it from happening. Do the same Action.
  • Object, keep it’s shape, color, size, location, or any other characteristic. Objects can be who as well as what. Apply stable Alternative to Person, who it’s happening to, for, with or by and remember preventing for person as well.
  • Begin State, start from the same State each time.
  • End State, keep the same State, prevent the State from changing
  • Tool, holds, protects, restricts, locks, etc. Tool does not change, move, or break.
  • Conditions, hold conditions stable, same conditions used each time, etc.
  • Resources, use a Resource that is consistent such as gravity.


Seat Belt, keeps passenger safe, holds passenger in seat

Illustration 31: Seat belt keeps passenger safe

Seat Belt

  • Hold person in seat
  • Keep person safe
  • Prevents serious injury

Sippy Cup

Illustration 32: Sippy cup

Sippy Cup

  • Lid keeps liquid in
  • Avoids spills
  • Plastic, prevents breaking

Make Stable

Make StableStarting from some undesired State it creates a stable desired State. Change a property of an element to bring it to a stable State.

Make Stable options are described with words such as:

  • become
  • approach
  • replace
  • result
  • reach
  • asymptotic

The Make Stable Alternative applies to all 7 Elements.

  • Actions, starts with another Action and ends with the appropriate Action.
  • Object, becomes the shape, color, size, location, or any other characteristic. Objects can be who as well as what. Apply make stable Alternative to Person, who it’s happening to, for, with or by and remember preventing for person as well.
  • Begin State, the Begin State changes over time. A system might need to handle many variations until the more efficient supply is established.
  • End State, a system that can start with many different start States and results in the same End State.
  • Tool, a Tool might form fit to the task or the user.
  • Conditions, Condition becomes stable over time.
  • Resources, a Resource that accumulates, stabilizes, or becomes available over time. Waste material that is used for padding or sound insulation could be a Make Stable Resource.



Illustration 33: Glue makes stables

Glue makes things stick together permanently.


Illustration 34: Vaccine

Vaccine causes immunity to disease.


Illustration 35: Fossil, make stable

Fossils happen when water with minerals soaks into the object then the water dries and the object decays away the minerals are left behind as a fossil.


Return to Stable

Return to StableBring the desired State back if it changes. Like all stable Alternatives you might have used a direct or indirect to reach the desired State.

Return to Stable options are described with words such as:

  • change
  • recover
  • restore
  • fluctuate
  • heal
  • recycle
  • flexible
  • repair
  • reuse

Return to Stable Alternative applies to all 7 Elements.

  • Actions, change from one Action to another then back
  • Object, recovers shape, color, size, location, or any other characteristic. Objects can be who as well as what. Apply make return to stable Alternative to Person, who it’s happening to, for, with or by and remember preventing for person as well.
  • Begin State, system handles fluctuating Begin State.
  • End State, a range of End States.
  • Tool, a Tool might adjust to Conditions.
  • Conditions, fluctuates.
  • Resources, reuse, recycle, restore.


Illustration 36: Springs


  • Bend and return
  • Stretch and return


Illustration 37: Generator

Generator returns power if it fails.


Illustration 38: Thermostat

Thermostat turns on heat if it gets too cold or air conditioning if it gets too hot. Returns temperature to the desired setting.

Time and Alternatives

Innovation is always dealing with change so the passage of time is a fundamental concept for innovation. Time is specifically referenced in the directions, especially the Stable Alternatives. Keep Stable, Make Stable and Return to Stable focus on changes in relation to time. Direct and Indirect are less concerned with time and focus on now. Direct Alternatives achieve the goal when the Action is performed and stop when the Action stops. Indirect is the opposite or different from Direct so regarding time it might be not now meaning before or after. When Continuous is applied to time it overlaps the three Stable Alternatives. It’s helpful to think about how time is considered for each of the directions.

Combining Scales and Directions

By combining the 3 Scales and the 5 Directions you have 15 Alternatives. For an example look at coloring a wall. Walls can be colored in many different ways. The typical approach is paint. The end user of the wall does not care how the wall gets the desired color, only that it is the desired color without any other negative effects.

This is only a sample of each type. In reality there are at least 105 types with multiple variations for each. As you read these samples think of other ways of doing the same type or other types for each Alternative. Space has been left for you to write down your ideas.

Example: Paint Sticks to Surface





More / Increase / NewOnce
One thing
One way
Decrease Other Same
One thing the same
Becomes permanent
Improves once
Single step
Changes once


Many more
Many times
Many steps
Many other Same many ways
Same many times
Becomes permanent in many ways
Multiple steps
Changes many times

Increase all
Increase any
Increase none
All other
Any other
Decrease all
Decrease any
Any same
All same
All ways becomes permanent Always returns
Always changes




Make paint stick better to one type of surface. Paint sticks during a Single Condition such as temperature or humidity. Paint sticks after one coat.






Make paint stick better to multiple surfaces. Paint sticks during multiple Conditions, such as hot and cold or low and high humidity. Two step process, primer then paint.







Paint sticks to any surface. Paint sticks during any Condition.






Wall holds paint better. The brush makes the paint stick better.







Wall holds multiple types of coloring such as paint or wallpaper.








Wall holds any color or type of coloring. No paint, color is projected on the wall.




Keep Stable


Make the wall from a material that is the desired color.







Make the wall from a material that is multiple colors. Color appears the same in multiple Conditions, reacts to light.







Any color. No color, it is transparent so you can see the desired Object through it. Continuously reacts to Conditions to always appear as desired.




Make Stable


Single treatment makes it stable, stain. Single color. Ceiling paint changes color after drying making it easier to see where you painted.


Multiple colors. Multiple types of surfaces, such as interior, exterior, walls, ceilings, or floors. Multiple treatments to make it stable. Multiple step process.


Treatment permanently colors any surface. Any color stain. Stains the entire room or Object at once.




Return to Stable


Returns to color once. Film placed on wall allows dirt to be removed once. Scuff mark removed with heat or a chemical applied to wall once.


Returns to color multiple times. Multiple layers that can be removed. Covering is thick allowing it to be sanded to remove stains or scuff marks. Easy to wash.


Color projected on the surface that automatically adjusts to display the correct color regardless of conditions.

1See Prerequisites section for more explanation of Functional Distinction

Chapter 7 Chapter 9


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