Find Innovation Where You Least Expect It2 December, 2015 / Articles
On the evening of April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg in the north Atlantic and sunk two hours and 40 minutes later. Of its 2,200 passengers and crew, only 705 survived, plucked out of 16 lifeboats by the Carpathia. Imagine how many more might have lived if crew members had thought of the iceberg as not just the cause of the disaster but a life-saving solution. The iceberg rose high above the water and stretched some 400 feet in length. The lifeboats might have ferried people there to look for a flat spot. The Titanic itself was navigable for a while and might have been able to pull close enough to the iceberg for people to scramble on. Such a rescue operation was not without precedent: Some 60 years before, 127 of 176 passengers emigrating from Ireland to Canada saved themselves in the Gulf of St. Lawrence by climbing aboard an ice floe.
It’s impossible to know if this rescue attempt would have worked. At the least it’s an intriguing idea—yet surprisingly difficult to envision. If you were to ask a group of executives, even creative product managers and marketers, to come up with innovative scenarios in which all the Titanic’s passengers could have been saved, they would very likely have the same blind spot as the crew. The reason is a common psychological bias—called functional fixedness—that limits a person to seeing an object only in the way in which it is traditionally used. In a nautical context, an iceberg is a hazard to be avoided; it’s very hard to see it any other way.
When it comes to innovation, businesses are constantly hampered by functional fixedness and other cognitive biases that cause people to overlook elegant solutions hidden in plain sight. We have spent years investigating how innovative designs can be built by harnessing the power of the commonly overlooked. We have identified techniques and tools to help overcome cognitive traps and solve problems in innovative ways—whether conceiving new products, finding novel applications for existing products, or anticipating competitive threats. Using the tools doesn’t require special talents or heroic degrees of creativity; taken together, they form a simple, low-cost, systematic way to spur innovation.
To understand how the tools work, let’s first look at the three cognitive barriers they address.
In the 1930s, the German psychologist Karl Duncker demonstrated the phenomenon of functional fixedness with a famous brainteaser. He gave subjects a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches and asked them to find a way to affix the candle to the wall so that when it was lit, wax would not drip onto the floor. Many people had a hard time realizing that the answer was to empty the box of tacks, attach the candle to the inside of the box with melted wax, and then tack the box to the wall. The box acts as a shelf that supports the candle and catches the dripping wax. Because the box had been presented to subjects as a tack holder, they couldn’t see it any other way.
In similar puzzles—known by cognitive psychologists as “insight problems”—people have trouble seeing that in a pinch a plastic lawn chair could be used as a paddle (turn it over, grab two legs, and start rowing); that a basketball could be deflated, formed into the shape of a bowl, and used to safely carry hot coals from one campsite to another; or that a candlewick could be used to tie things together (scrape the wax away to free the string).
What causes functional fixedness? When we see a common object, we automatically screen out awareness of features that are not important for its use. This is an efficient neurological tactic for everyday life, but it’s the enemy of innovation.
One way to overcome the problem is to change how you describe an object. When told that a candlewick is a string, for instance, almost everyone recognizes that it could be used to tie things together. Our “generic parts technique” is a systematic way to change the way an object is described to avoid unintentionally narrowing people’s conception of it, opening them to more ideas for its uses.
We consider each element of an object in turn and ask two questions: “Can it be broken down further?” and “Does our description imply a particular use?” If the answer to either question is yes, we keep breaking down the elements until they’re described in their most general terms, mapping the results on a simple tree. When an iceberg is described generically as a floating surface 200 feet to 400 feet long, its potential as a life-saving platform soon emerges.
Calling something a “wick” implies its use as a conduit of a flame. Describing it as a “string” strips away a layer of preconceived uses and suggests less common ones. Breaking the string down further into its constituent parts of “fibrous strands” might spark even more uses.
To see if generating generic descriptions bolsters creative thinking, our research team presented two groups of students with eight insight problems that required overcoming the functional fixedness bias in order to solve. We told the members of one group simply to try their best. We taught the other group the generic parts technique and then asked them to use it on the problems. The people in the first group were able to solve, on average, 49% of the problems (just shy of four of them). Those who systematically engaged in creating generic descriptions of their resources were able to solve, on average, 83% (or 6.64) of them.