How come you don't see the solution that's right in front of you?

The solution to most problems already exists and is probably right in front of you, but we just don’t see it. We are too stuck in our thinking, which hinders coming up with creative solutions, sees innovation expert Simone van Neerven. Here are three tips to prevent functional fixedness.

Would another outcome for the Titanic have been possible?

Just before midnight on April 14, 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean. Six of the sixteen compartments tore open and started to fill with water. Panic breaks out, and everyone wants to get off and go as far away from the iceberg as possible. But there are far too few lifeboats for everyone, so many end up in the water and do not stand a chance in the icy water. More than 1,500 people die.

Would it have been possible that more people could have survived this? The water was too cold to live for more than a few minutes, but they might have made it if they had sought refuge on the iceberg. However, that solution was never considered, as the iceberg was seen as a great danger rather than a way to survive.

Too fixated on the original goal

The inability to see beyond the initial purpose of an object is called ‘functional fixedness’. We keep thinking in the same way, hindering us from seeing things with different eyes. It is an incredible sweet spot for innovation. If you can look beyond what is in front of you, you will see new solutions easily. There are countless examples of this.

For example, physicist Percy Spencer worked in the 1940s on a new technique to develop better radar systems to limit the bombing of London. He discovered that the same technique could also be used to heat food, leading to the microwave.

For years we dragged our luggage around, until 1970, when Bernard Sadow, an employee at US Luggage, was waiting in line at the airport. He saw an airport employee rolling by a heavy piece of equipment without any difficulty. It gave him the idea to put wheels under the suitcases.

Breeding grounds for innovation

Magic often happens in places where you do not expect it. Most inventions are not entirely original; they are either successful ideas from a different setting or combinations of previously applied concepts.

It was not without reason that in coffee houses, during the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), lots of new things were created. People from very different backgrounds gathered. They traded, played cards and debated passionately. The same thing happened in the Parisian salons, where the origin of almost everything that defines the contemporary art world lies.

Places that are a potpourri of many different people and influences broaden your view and give you new insights that you would otherwise not pick up so quickly.

Three tips to protect yourself against functional fixedness:

#1: Step out of your 'bubble'

We can learn a lot from the coffee houses. It was a place where people stepped out of their bubbles to gain new insights. In the quarterly newspaper ‘Het Koffy-huis der Nieusgierigen’ (1744-1746), an anonymous writer aptly described how, thanks to the free, accessible atmosphere, visitors of all stripes could get to know each other better: “The merchant curses the war and the fighter curses the peace, the learned man despises all who are rich, while he desires with all his heart and soul to be rich: just as the rich man mocks and despises all sciences and learned men.”

These days, we are all too often completely stuck in our bubbles. Former Google engineer Max Hawkins invented a way to ‘bubble hop’ in the digital world by developing algorithms that facilitate randomness. It inspired Emma Stenström, Associate Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics, who created the ‘Bubblehoppa’ approach for the analogue world. Both methods aim to gain a deeper understanding of people who are different from yourself, broaden our perspectives and discover new, surprising insights.

#2: Get out and relax

Another way to generate new ideas is to go into nature because nature has a solution for everything. The Swiss engineer George de Mestral was walking his dog when he noticed various burdock berries adhered to his fur. This incident led to the invention of Velcro.

Researchers at Princeton University found that adding folds to the solar cells—a feature also present in plant leaves—makes the panels much more efficient. Mosquitoes spurred the creation of ultra-thin needles, and termite mounds provided insight into the design of self-cooling buildings for countries such as Zimbabwe and Australia.

#3: Learn from children's open-mindedness

Do you want to learn to break free from functional fixedness? Look at the children. They do not focus as much on the original function of an object. If you give them some cushions and boxes, they will create a fantastic hut, spaceship, or train. Or they will invent an entirely new game. The key is to revert to your more innocent self and not let your quick judgements get in the way.

A method to train this is asking questions, which kids do far more often than grownups. During a family vacation in the mid-1940s, inventor and scientist Edwin H. Land took a photo of his three-year-old daughter. She asked why she could not immediately see the picture, which gave Land the idea for the Polaroid camera. The camera was an enormous hit and is still quite popular today.

So, next time you have trouble coming up with a solution, get out of your bubble, go into nature, or ask a child how it would solve it. You will be amazed at the insights you will get.

This article was originally published in Dutch on MT/Sprout, the most popular business and management platform in the Netherlands.

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