We are often too close to what we do to get a true picture of its value and usefulness to others. This is because our relatively complex maps of what and how we do things result in a cognitive bias known in psychological circles as “functional fixedness.”
Functional fixedness means that our thinking has evolved in a way that limits us to using an object (or an idea) only in the way that we are accustomed to using it.
In 1945, Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker defined functional fixedness as being a "mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem."
In his classic experiment, Duncker gave participants a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches, and asked them to attach the candle to the wall so that it did not drip onto the table below. He found that people tried many unsuccessful ways to solve the problem – including attaching the candle directly to the wall with the tacks, or gluing it to the wall by melting it – but very few of them thought of the inside of the box of thumbtacks as a candle-holder, and tacking this to the wall instead. When he repeated the experiment, giving people a box that was now empty of thumbtacks, they were almost twice as likely to solve the problem.
The older we get, and the more experience we gain, the more likely we are to exhibit “functional fixedness”.
Tests have shown that children aged 5 years have no signs of functional fixedness, but by age 7 have acquired the tendency to treat the originally intended purpose of an object as special.
This might explain why you can tip a box of Lego on the floor of a kindergarten and the three and four-year-olds will just go for it, making the most weird and wonderful creations, whereas school-age children often prefer being given a Lego box containing the parts and instructions to make something tangible, like a car or plane.
As well as making it more challenging to think laterally to solve problems, there is another impact of functional fixedness – our inability to acknowledge what we do as valuable, and special.
If this is a problem for you, hold onto the possibility that what you do is already awesome, and that all we need to do is find a way to explain it to others so that they get it - and want to buy it.
|Robyn Haydon is a business development consultant specialising in business that is won through competitive bids and tenders. Her clients have won and retained hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business with many of Australia’s largest corporate and government buyers.|
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