Functional fixedness: when we stick to what we know - Deepstash

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Functional fixedness

Functional fixedness is a bias where we can only think of a narrow set of functions for a tool. A knife is made to cut things. A cotton swab is for cleaning your ears.

It is common to stick to what we know. We become comfortable repeating tasks in a way that fits with our preconceived ideas on how they should be done, especially if these ideas worked in the past. But being stuck in our methods can stop us from discovering better solutions.

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Functional fixedness experiment

Functional fixedness experiment

Karl Duncker first described functional fixedness in 1945. 

In a study, participants were given a candle, a box of tacks and a book of matches. Participants were challenged to attach the candle to a wall so that it would not drip on the floor. Instead of noticing that the tack box could be used on its own, they only saw it as a storage box.

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Make a conscious effort

Studies suggest that it's possible to teach your brain to move away from functional fixedness and embrace creative thinking.

When faced with a task or problem at work, try stepping away from how it's always been done. Instead, explore the problem creatively to find alternative solutions.

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Abstract the problem

A step away from functional fixedness is to break a problem into its basic components. Instead of focusing on the details, only focus on the essential elements. When the problem is stripped from unnecessary detail, you're less likely to fall back on functional fixedness.

For example, if you need to re-pot a plant, instead of finding a plant pot, look for an object to hold the plant, such as a mug or jar.

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Remove judgment

When you approach a task in a new way, it's easy to judge unusual ideas harshly and reject them.

Be open to new perspectives instead of limiting your options. At first, you should not consider any idea as too strange.

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Look for inspiration

A different industry in another sector could have a simple solution to your issue that you have not thought of due to function fixedness.

Explore adjacent industries for creative solutions. For example, ask a friend how they would approach your issue in their industry.

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Expand your network

Crowdsourcing is an excellent way to get the support of external participants to find solutions.

For example, LEGO encourages fans to submit their own ideas instead of only relying on in-house designers. The most popular will be reviewed, and if approved, will be manufactured.

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