In a 1945 monograph, Karl Duncker reported several experiments that demonstrated what he called functional fixedness[Duncker 1945]. Functional fixedness is our tendency to fail to recognize creative uses for objects when we know of — or shortly after we've been reminded of — conventional uses for those same objects. It's one of what we now call cognitive biases, which cause us to make systematic errors of thought or perception.
For example, everyone recognizes that coins are money, and that we can make purchases with them; not everyone recognizes that coins make effective doorstops when wedged into the space between the hinged side of an open door and the jamb. Upon seeing this "trick" for the first time a typical response is surprise — in part because of functional fixedness. (Light reading: "Ten Uses for Coins")
Much has been written about functional fixedness, especially in connection with creativity, because it can prevent people and teams from finding innovative solutions to important problems. But functional fixedness also has a dark side. It causes us to interpret the behavior of others in terms of the goals that those behaviors usually serve, even when those behaviors are serving a very different goal for the person who's using them. Here are three examples. I'll use fictitious names for people: Adrian and Brook.
- Reserving a meeting room or conference facility
- The usual way to reserve a facility for a meeting is to sign up for it using scheduling software. Another perhaps more effective method of reserving meeting space is to schedule a regular meeting in that space for the entire foreseeable future — six or twelve months. The meeting thus serves the purpose of reserving the meeting space, which for many regular meetings, can be more important than any item that ever appears on that meeting's agendas.
- Functional To exploit functional fixedness,
use an everyday behavior
for some other purposefixedness causes us to interpret meetings as meetings, rather than as a means of reserving meeting facilities.
- Asking for information
- Usually, when we ask someone about X, what we want to know is X. But sometimes Adrian might ask Brook about X not to find out about X, but to determine whether Brook knows about X.
- Functional fixedness prevents us from seeing this transaction as something different from an attempt to learn about X.
- Delegation blockage
- Usually, when a manager delegates a task T to someone, the purpose is to ensure that T will be completed. But sometimes the purpose of assigning a task T to Adrian is to keep Adrian busy, perhaps as a distraction, or perhaps to ensure that Adrian is unavailable for some other task T'. Maybe the manager doesn't trust Adrian to handle T', or the manager has promised T' to Brook. In such cases, the manager likely cares less about task T than about keeping Adrian from working on T'.
- Functional fixedness can prevent us from seeing delegation as anything other than a way to partition responsibility.
When Adrian's phone rings, and she excuses herself from the meeting to take the call, we tend to assume that it's an important call. But what if Adrian has an app on her phone that makes fake calls? Yes, fake call apps do exist. They "work," in part, because of functional fixedness. Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenrJfHbXrzDMoNYcEWner@ChacIlPwqlujwAfzuRxmoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Ethical Influence: II
- When we influence others as they're making tough decisions, it's easy to enter a gray area. How can
we be certain that our influence isn't manipulation? How can we influence others ethically?
- Pariah Professions: II
- In some organizations entire professions are regarded as pariahs — outsiders. They're expected
to perform functions that the organization does need, but their relationships with others in the organization
are strained at best. When pariahdom is tolerated, organizational performance suffers.
- Social Entry Strategies: I
- Much more than work happens in the workplace. We also engage in social behaviors, including one sometimes
called social entry. We use social entry strategies to make places for ourselves in social groups at work.
- The End-to-End Cost of Meetings: II
- Few of us realize where all the costs of meetings really are. Some of the most significant cost sources
are outside the meeting room. Here's Part II of our exploration of meeting costs.
- The Discontinuity Effect: What and Why
- Counterproductive competition is more likely in group-group interactions than in one-to-one or one-to-group
interactions. Why does counterproductive competition happen?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
- When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
- And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
- Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenxEqLhHYlsAvhFuAmner@ChacBuzKDqOuOFOpVTEMoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.