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

Exploiting Functional Fixedness: I

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

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.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

President George W. Bush and President Vladimir PutinI've Got Your Number, Pal
Recent research has uncovered a human tendency — possibly universal — to believe that we know others better than others know them, and that we know ourselves better than others know themselves. These beliefs, rarely acknowledged and often wrong, are at the root of many a toxic conflict of long standing.
Rachel Hoffman, for whom Florida's Rachel's Law is namedOn Snitching at Work: II
Reporting violations of laws, policies, regulations, or ethics to authorities at work can expose you to the risk of retribution. That's why the reporting decision must consider the need for safety.
A schematic representation of a MOSFETBottlenecks: II
When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern.
Promotional poster for the 1957 film Twelve Angry MenThe Opposite of Influence
The question of why some people are so influential has a partner question: why are others largely ignored, or opposed, even when their contributions are valuable?
A shark of unspecified speciesNarcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard.

See also Workplace Politics and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Domestic turkeys. The turkey has become known for lack of intelligence.Coming July 24: The Stupidity Attribution Error
In workplace debates, we sometimes conclude erroneously that only stupidity can explain why our debate partners fail to grasp the elegance or importance of our arguments. There are many other possibilities. Available here and by RSS on July 24.
A happy dogAnd on July 31: More Things I've Learned Along the Way: IV
When I have an important insight, or when I'm taught a lesson, I write it down. Here's Part IV from my personal collection. Available here and by RSS on July 31.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

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

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership
On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.