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. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Devious Political Tactics: The False Opportunity
- Workplace politics can make any environment dangerous, both to your career and to your health. This
excerpt from my little catalog of devious political tactics describes the false opportunity, which appears
to be a chance to perform, to contribute, or to make a real difference. It's often something else.
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- The expression "the elephant in the room" describes the thought that most of us are thinking,
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- The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: II
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organizations from achieving their objectives. In this Part II of our examination of these complexities,
we look into what keeps processes complicated, and how to deal with them.
- Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
- People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their
own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how
this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people.
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- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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- 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.
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Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.