Curing functional fixedness (or, how to turn a desk into a magic castle).

Small children are extraordinary inventive in using everyday objects to augment their imaginative play. A large box becomes a space capsule; a table, a blanket and a couple of chairs become an enchanted castle. “Growing up” tends to bury this ability, making us less inclined to see everyday things in new ways. We acquire cognitive biases as we mature, which frequently end up in “Functional Fixedness” – an inability to see an object (or a team) in any other way than its original purpose.

Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker devised an ingenious experiment demonstrating cognitive bias, which led him to coin the term “Functional Fixedness.” Participants were supplied with a box of drawing pins, a box of matches and a candle, and asked to work out how to stick the candle to a wall so that the wax didn’t drip to the floor when lit. The result? Virtually no one figured it out. The solution was actually simple: empty the drawing pins from their box, pin it to the wall and set the candle upright inside it. However, for the participants, the drawing pin box was a drawing pin box and only that. They couldn’t do what their five-year-old selves would have done – look beyond its “official” function.

Taking a more Gestalt-oriented approach can help to resuscitate this playful imagination our younger selves were so adept at. One way to achieve this is through free conversation: when people are invited to engage in unscripted, unplanned, spontaneous conversations together, the functional fixedness cementing the boundaries between figure (what we automatically notice) and ground (what we fail to see despite it being there) becomes much more fluid.

Next time, I’ll explore the value of setting up what business innovation psychologist Andy Zynga calls “Functional Fixedness SWAT teams.”

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