Curing functional fixedness (Part Two)

Karl Duncker’s experiment demonstrating Functional Fixedness, which I described last time, has a good deal of relevance for any company trying to develop a breakthrough product.

Most of the time, a talented group of people fail to make headway not because of a lack of intelligence or imagination but because their talents are confined by the perceptual ruts of Functional Fixedness.

When people think inside a conventional figure and ground mindset — seeing and understanding what their discipline of choice has trained them to see — they apply their expertise in the ways they’re accustomed to. As a Gestalt consultant, I aim to encourage people to suspend their understanding whenever they’re seeking innovations. Understanding is fine for when the organisation is running “as normal”; but if novelty is to stand a chance, existing understanding will almost certainly prevent its emergence.

Andy Zynga, a business psychologist who specialises in innovation, cites the example of PepsiCo. A few years ago, they wanted to cut back on the sodium content in their snack foods while preserving the salty taste their consumers craved. Scientists in the company’s R&D department toiled away in their own labs to no avail. Then they searched across the packaged foods industry and further afield until they finally discovered what they were seeking — in a research lab studying osteoporosis!

Bone disease and salty snacks, of course, have nothing in common. However, by practising what Zynga calls “open innovation”, PepsiCo’s scientists discovered that the osteoporosis scientists had found a means of creating nanoparticles composed of a low-sodium, salt-like substance, created by smashing calcium into minute particles and re-growing it. This allowed PepsiCo to solve its problem in a completely novel way — an innovation based on an idea that originated in a completely different business for a completely different purpose.

Zynga advocates setting up “Functional Fixedness SWAT teams” — a group of innovation seekers who are at ease with collaborating with others outside their industry walls. Closed loops thereby magically morph into open ones.