The Cognitive Bias Keeping Us from Innovating
Any five-year-old has no trouble turning an old blanket and a couple of chairs into an impenetrable fort. But as we get older, knowledge and experience increasingly displace imagination and our ability to see an object for anything other than its original purpose. This is called Functional Fixedness and while you probably won't need to build a fort during your professional career, chances are you do suffer from it and it is impacting your work. How can I be so sure? Well ... you're human, right?
Like the Curse of Knowledge I've written about before, Functional Fixedness is a well-known cognitive bias. I'm actually glad it exists because if it didn't, my industry probably wouldn't exist. Clients often hire Open Innovation companies like ours when their research and development teams can't get past — or maybe over is a better word — the way they have always looked, and where they have always looked for solutions.
While Functional Fixedness has no doubt been around since Man first tied a sharp rock to a stick with a length of vine and called it a spear, it was Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker that originally coined the term after conducting what has become a famous (among psychologists, anyway) cognitive bias experiment. Study subjects were handed a candle, a book of matches, and a box of tacks and asked to figure out how to stick the candle to a wall so that when lit the wax wouldn't drip on the floor. The simple solution was to remove the tacks from the box, set the candle upright in the box, and then tack the box to the wall. The problem was, most participants' understanding of the box as an object used for holding the tacks was so strong and entrenched, they couldn't imagine that it could also become a makeshift shelf. They were literally unable to "think outside the box."
Companies often struggle to develop breakthrough products because they are hobbled by Functional Fixedness. Technologists, engineers, and designers not only have their own expertise, they have their own way of applying their expertise. Ironically, the more success they've had with their approach to a solution, the harder it is to imagine a different one.
Getting back to that five-year-old, what Open Innovation does is replicate the process he or she goes through to see the potential of a fort in a couple of chairs and a blanket. Usually it takes the child's mind, unhindered by experience and fueled by imagination, just seconds to make connections between what they're trying to create and objects that have an unrelated use. Skilled Open Innovation practitioners — who granted take a little longer — source solutions to specific problems in the same way; by enabling a connection between a need and potential solutions that reside in unrelated industries.
Here's an example. PepsiCo needed to find a way to reduce the amount of sodium in its potato chips without reducing the salty flavor that customers love. Its search — despite looking across the entire food industry and not only the snack industry — had not produced a viable solution. So we helped express the need and craft a technical brief in a way that cast a wider net. That brief, Nanoparticle Halide Salt: Formulation and Delivery, was then "marketed" to a broad audience of technical experts. Proposals came in from a variety of industries and organization types, including energy and fuels, pharma, and engineering services. The winning response to the brief came from the orthopedics department of a global research lab. The scientists there had developed a way to create nano-particles of salt which they needed to conduct advanced research on osteoporosis. For PepsiCo, this wasn't in itself the ultimate solution, but the search yielded a valuable new partner and perspective. It went on to solve its problem in a truly innovative way.
Of course, the first step in dealing with functional fixedness is determining how much you're suffering from it in the first place. In our business, collaborative innovation is crucial, so we worked with Caliper, a specialist in human capital assessment, to find a way to gauge an individual's relative strength at it. Together we created a tool to measure more than 20 related traits. The questions related to what we termed "idea orientation" get at the person's ability to overcome functional fixedness. Those with high idea orientation are motivated to develop creative, original solutions, while low scorers are inclined to use well-established methods.
Any exercise in assessing traits raises the question of whether they can be strengthened. Can someone tasked with innovation take steps to move beyond functional fixedness? I believe it is possible. Try running cross-industry, cross-discipline technology searches — unearth some dramatically different ways to tackle problems —and you'll see how minds begin to expand.
If you suspect your R&D staffers will bristle at anything that challenges their abilities, consider setting up a Functional Fixedness SWAT team — a hothouse group of innovators who embrace the idea of collaborating with solution providers outside their industry walls. Companies who have done this have noted that, through their example, such teams can inspire others to evolve from a closed-loop process to an open one. And thus, the R&D department that at first seems to be an impenetrable fortress can turn out to be a much more flexible set of chairs and a blanket, with the people inside still innovating like five-year-olds.