Look at this word, then see what mental picture you get: HAMMER. Like most people, you probably see a person’s hand wrapped around a metal or wood stick with an object fixed on top. You may see this object being used to strike other objects. You may imagine the heaviness of the object. The word “hammer” is a mental shortcut that instantly conjures up all the memories and associations you have with that thing. Naming objects is useful.
But the names we give items also creates a barrier to innovative thinking. We have a difficult time seeing that object doing anything else than the task assigned to it. It is also difficult for us to imagine using other objects to do the job of a hammer. It is a condition called Functional Fixedness.
Psychologist Karl Duncker discovered Functional Fixedness when he posed his famous “candle problem.” In this classic 1945 experiment. Duncker sat participants down at a table positioned against a wall. He gave each one a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches, and asked them to attach the candle to the wall. Duncker realized that participants were so “fixated” on the thumbtack box’s traditional function that they couldn’t conceive of it as a possible solution to the problem. Interestingly, in later experiments, participants presented with an empty thumbtack box were twice as likely to solve Dunker’s challenge than those given a full one. Somehow, seeing the box out of context—that is, not performing its usual function of holding thumbtacks—helped them visualize it as a possible solution.
How do you beat fixedness? Tony McCaffery, a postdoctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, suggests a clever little trick – break items into their component parts and give them new, generalized names. This helps you see beyond the object’s traditional function and helps you think more creatively of other functions it can perform. He was featured in this month’s Scientific American MindTM:
“First, break down the items at hand into their basic parts, then name each part in a way that does not imply meaning. Using his technique, a candle becomes wax and string. Seeing the wick as a string is key: calling it a “wick” implies that its use is to be lit, but calling it a “string” opens up new possibilities.”
1. List all of the components, both internal and external, that are part of the Closed World of the product, service, or process.
2. Select a component from the list. Assign it an additional task using one of three ways: choose an external component and use it to perform a task that the product already accomplishes; choose an internal component and make it do something new or extra; choose an internal component and make it do the function of an external component (effectively “stealing” the external component’s function).
3. Visualize the new (or changed) products or services. What are the potential benefits, markets, and values? Who would want this and why would they find it valuable? If you are trying to solve a specific problem, how can it help address that particular challenge?
4. If you decide they are valuable, then ask: Are they feasible? Can you actually create these new products? Perform these new services? Why or why not? Is there any way to refine or adapt the idea to make it more viable?
Drew Boyd is Assistant Professor of Marketing and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati and Executive Director of the MS-Marketing program. Follow him at www.innovationinpractice.com and at https://twitter.com/drewboyd