In a 1945 monograph, Karl Duncker reported several experiments that demonstrated what he called functional fixedness. 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
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
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- When organizations know that they've done something they shouldn't have, or they haven't done something
they should have, they often try to conceal the bad news. When dealing with whistleblowers, they can
be especially ruthless.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: III
- In group decision-making, impasses can develop. Some are related to the substance of the issue at hand.
With some effort, we can usually resolve substantive impasses. But treating nonsubstantive impasses
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- Holding Back: II
- Members of high-performing teams rarely hold back effort. But truly high performance is rare in teams.
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- And on December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
- When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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- Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
- When we talk, listen, send or read emails,
read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person.
And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling
hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how
to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes
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- Embassy Suites by Hilton Jacksonville Baymeadows, 9300 Baymeadows Road, Jacksonville, Florida, 32256, USA: January 15, 2018, Monthly Meeting, Northeast Florida Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
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