May 28, 2012

Beware of Functional Fixedness

Last weekend, about 15 minutes before people were to start arriving at my home as part of our neighborhood home tour, I realized I had no vases left for the tall flowers that were to go on the kitchen counter.  What to do?

Trim the stems down to just a few inches and place them in champagne flutes with the flowers resting just above the rim of the glasses.  This improvised solution (necessity really is the mother of invention) got more comments than just about anything else in my home.  In fact the most amusing moment of the evening came when I overheard three women talking about the flowers:  "That's so clever."  "I know.  The gays always are."  Cracked. Me. Up.

It's not the first time I've repurposed an object for another use.  If we keep our minds open, just about anything—an object, a program, a service—is multipurpose if we can get beyond our tendency for functional fixedness.  Wikipedia defines functional fixedness as,
"a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used."
Bookshelves or painting display?
In his popular book, Drive, Dan Pink tells the story of Karl Duncker and his candle experiment, a challenge that can only be solved if the participants interrupt their cognitive biases and literally think outside the box.  It's too easy for our brains to take an object's traditional form (i.e., glass) and lock it into only one function (drinking beverages). More possible uses means more likely reuses, a clear benefit in terms of renewing our resources and creating more sustainable solutions.

If we step back and look a bit more broadly at the category behind the form, it opens up more possible functions:  a glass is a container for holding something.  Those same champagne flutes also make perfect candleholders when you place a votive inside.  One object, multiple purposes, maximized value.  When I needed a place to display these wonderful paintings from the Fictional Portrait series by Miami artist Hans Feyerabend, I had to get beyond seeing the shelves on this Sapien-style bookcase as a place to stack books.  This "artcase" is now one of the most frequently commented on spots in my home.

When you move beyond functional constraints, more possibilities emerge.  Here is another home tour example that solved a common problem associated with many events.  The guidebook for the homes on the tour was a four-color publication.  To have that printed and bound was going to require more than a week.  However, we knew we would still be getting sponsors up until the last minute and wanted to include them in the guide.  What to do?  Our graphic designer came up with an elegant solution.  Stop thinking of the guidebook as one complete publication and instead unbundle it into its components.

He created individual "postcards" for each home on the tour and used an online printing service that completed them in 48 hours.  Sponsor postcards were photocopied black and white the day before the tour.  All of the components were then assembled, hole-punched in the corner, and bound with a simple ring.  Joila!  Not only did this help with deadlines, it actually was more functional. Tour participants could a home's page open more easily than a traditional saddle stitched booklet would have allowed.

Look around.  Right now you have something in your home, in your office, in your organization that is not being used to its full potential because of your functional fixedness.  Is that conference workshops only a session ... or is it a container of content, one that can yield blog posts, newsletter articles, video clips, Storify highlights, emailed takeaways, and much more?

 I'd like to humbly suggest that more resources isn't the solution we need much of the time; more resourcefulness is.


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