Beyond the Obvious: Recognizing and Overcoming Functional Fixedness 

Téléphone – Homard | Salvador Dali | © Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation

Have you ever considered how your opinions about the world and belief systems are formed or how you perceive the information and approach problem solving in various domains? Most often we build our whole thinking system based on cognitive bias which is our brain’s way of processing large amounts of information quickly through a filter of personal experience, knowledge and preferences. This reliance profoundly limits our ability to see beyond the obvious and familiar, hindering our capacity to explore alternative approaches to problems. And this phenomenon is known as Functional Fixedness. 

Functional fixedness is the cognitive bias that limits our ability to see alternative uses or functions for an object beyond its typical or intended purpose. It is one of the key factors affecting our ability to innovate and be creative in any problem solving scenario. 

Here are a few reasons why it occurs in the first place. 

Mental Set 
Mental set is the tendency to approach problems in a fixed manner relying on previous experiences, familiar strategies and established routines. When you encounter a familiar object, your mind automatically associates it with its typical function or purpose, making it challenging to see alternative uses. 

Let’s take the example of a simple mug. A mug can be viewed only as a container of beverages failing to recognize other potential options to use the mug besides a plant pot or a pencil container. 

In office settings, mental set can be influenced by role expectations.  It’s common to overlook valuable insights from your team members simply because their predefined roles and responsibilities don’t align with the topic at hand. This is a prime example of functional fixedness limiting their potential contributions to generating innovative solutions. 

Embracing diversity is essential for fostering creativity and innovation. And the way to embrace diversity and innovation is to foster teams engage in cross-functional collaboration and leverage their diverse skills and perspectives. Next time you are in a brainstorming session, consider involving someone from outside your immediate team. They might not be the one to come up with the breakthrough idea but they are the ones who are going to help you to think differently. Leverage their insights to challenge your own thinking and expand the range of outlook. 

Cognitive Inertia 
Cognitive Inertia is the resistance to change the thinking patterns and adapt new mental frameworks, being comfortable with familiar strategies and solutions, even when they may not be the most effective or efficient ones. Have you ever found yourself resisting to upgrade to a new version of technology or software to explore new features and functionalities? Or in a workplace setting, have you ever encountered a situation where employees resist opportunities for process improvement or innovative problem-solving because they are comfortable with the existing methods and are reluctant to change their approach? Or, the most relatable one probably would be brand loyalty and resistance to switching to the brand’s competitors. There is a profound sense of familiarity, predictability and security with the preferred brand, which reduces the required cognitive effort to explore alternative choices. As a result, you may resist changing the brand, even if rational decision-making suggests you otherwise.

Cultural Conditioning 
Our perception and comprehension of the world, as well as various objects and their functions, are heavily influenced by cultural norms and social conditioning. Let’s take the case of chopsticks being used as eating utensils in East Asian countries. People primarily associate chopsticks with the act of eating, often overlook their potential for other uses, maybe stirring, cooking, or even as makeshift tools for various tasks. The cultural conditioning that views chopsticks solely as eating utensils automatically limits creative thinking about their broader functionality.

Sometimes, certain products or tools are intentionally created for specific functions and that is Functional Fixedness by Design.
Functional fixedness by design automatically reinforces preconceived notions and limits your ability to think beyond their intended use. Let’s take paper clips as an example. Paper clips are commonly used for holding papers together. The design, with its straight wire and two rounded loops, is specifically optimized for this purpose. The familiar design and widespread use of paper clips instinctively lead us to overlook their potential for other uses, such as cable organizers, makeshift hooks, or jewelry.

Functional fixedness, whether it’s due to design, culture, or mindset, can be overcome through conscious effort, willingness to challenge your own thinking patterns and, in general, adapting more flexibility in our mindset.

To sum up, here are the key takeaways from this article:

Practice generating ideas daily. Dedicate a couple of minutes a day to think of 20-30 unconventional uses of conventional objects: a mug, a pen, a paper clip, a phone case whatever is in front of you at the moment. Train your brain to become fluent in generating ideas.

In the office setting, arrange cross-functional brainstorming sessions. Invite someone outside of your team with a completely different background to participate in your idea generating sessions. They may not be the ones to come up with the game-changing idea, but they are the ones who will inspire you to think unconventionally.

And, as a bonus effortless “discomfort” tip, try taking a different route when going to a familiar destination. Small changes in established patterns create ripple effects and play a massive role in long term outcomes.