Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 46;   November 15, 2017:

Exploiting Functional Fixedness: I

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Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that creates difficulty in seeing novel uses of things that have familiar uses. Some devious moves in workplace politics exploit functional fixedness.
A meeting of people and their laptops

A meeting of people and their laptops. Maybe they need their laptops for some reason related to the content of the meeting. Maybe for some other reason. Hard to say.

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 purpose
fixedness 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.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Motivation and the Reification Error  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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

Footnotes

[Duncker 1945]
Karl Duncker. "On problem solving". Psychological Monographs 58:5 (Whole No. 270) 1945. Back

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