Functional Fixedness: Most Common Hidden Obstacle on any Project

About a week ago I came across an interesting article about Psychology in UX from Nielsen Norman.

The article brought to light an interesting study where children of various ages were given a simple problem to solve. The problem had to do with giving a child 2 objects, box of matches and a candle. Younger children had little or no context about these. The task was to create a candle holder. The same experiment was repeated with group of older children who naturally had more context about what candle and box of matches are used for.

The conclusion was that children who had no context of original purpose for the objects given (younger children), were faster at solving a problem which required somewhat of a creative creative solution. Older children were a bit confused when given this unusual task as opposed to a task of lighting a candle.

What's happening

As we live and interact, with everyday objects and people, we build a bias of what's acceptable and how things should work. This bias is great at solving standard problems repeating over an over again. At the same time, this bias is terrible when it comes to building a creative solution which has never been attempted as far as we know.

As consultants we face this issue a lot. We listen to business and technical problems every day. We make assumptions. We have a toolbox filled with solutions. Most of the time, things work. But more often than not we get stuck with the template approach. Now multiply this same factor by the number of stakeholders you're dealing with. If you have 3 people on the project - then all 3 of you are likely to have their own toolbox and assumptions and biases.

Recent example

In my recent discussion, customer asked me for a technical solution to preserve search results and filters as they open a new page with details of particular search result. My immediate reaction was that this will be a lot of work for developers, to preserve the state of the page before someone chooses to click on a link.
The less obvious solution: open a search result in a new window or a tab and leave the old page untouched. Simple and efficient.

How do we train creative thinking?

So how do we build up our creative thinking?

  • Focus on the end goal. This applies to everybody. Just because you're deep in trenches, it doesn't mean you don't have creative freedom. Even the most technical task can be looked at from a different angle.
  • Keep you mind clear. Thinking of a creative solution requires thinking outside of the box. If your brain is in a fog of thoughts - it's harder to think creatively and you default to more technical solutions. Practice techniques to help you relax and get comfortable.
  • Look for inspiration in other domains. Does the situation you're in remind you of game of chess, art sculpture or process of ordering coffee? If so, try and draw parallels how you can solve your problem following similar approach. Added bonus is if you share your story - customer is likely to relate to it in a similar way and you will encourage their creative thinking.
  • Practice, practice, practice! :) Don't do it just once or twice after reading this post. Our brain loves solving puzzles and coming up with creative solutions. The more you practice it - the more natural process it'll become.

Would love to hear your thoughts and comments!

Yaroslav Pentsarskyy has been a Microsoft MVP for 8 years and speaker at many local and worldwide tech events. Several of Yaroslav's books include: Rapid SharePoint 2013 development, Top 60 custom solutions built on SharePoint 2010, SharePoint 2010 branding in practice, and SharePoint and PowerShell Expert Cookbook.

@spentsarsky