There are many different roads to innovation. James Dyson developed his vacuum cleaner by noticing an analogy between vacuum cleaners and sawmills. George DeMestral created Velcro after looking at cockleburs sticking to the fur of his dog.
One strand of insight comes from breaking functional fixedness. The idea behind functional fixedness is best illustrated with the television show MacGyver. In this show, the main character would routinely get into a jam. To get himself out of it, he would fashion a device using all sorts of objects around him. The fascinating thing, though, was that he would use these objects in novel ways. Paper clips became wires; a toolbox was emptied and used to float something on a lake; a clock was taken apart to use some of its gears.
Broadly, we tend to think of objects having particular functions. Paper clips are for holding together papers. Toolboxes are for holding tools. We don't think about all of the parts of those objects and the materials they are made from, and so we don't recognize that we might be able to use those same objects for many different functions. The fun of MacGyver was watching him rig up a device by using objects in new ways.
For MacGyver, of course, it was all in the script. What can the rest of us do? An interesting paper by Tony McCaffrey in the March, 2012 issue of Psychological Science suggests that everyone can get better at breaking out of functional fixedness.
The key to breaking out of habitual ways of looking at objects is to list all of the features of the objects and then to describe them by looking at what they are made of rather than by thinking about their function. In the paper, McCaffrey gives the example of trying to combine together two metal rings using a candle and a block of metal. People have a lot of difficulty with this problem. However, if you start to list the parts of the objects, you recognize that a candle is made of wax and a wick. That wick is made of string. If you scrape the wax off the candle, you can use the string to tie together the rings.
In a study exploring this method, McCaffrey compared one group that was taught to list out all of the properties of the objects with another group that did not get this instruction. Then, the groups were given a series of six insight problems to solve, all of which required overcoming functional fixedness. The control group solved about half the problems, while the group listing features solved over 80 percent of the problems.
This strategy is a nice one to use when you get stuck solving a problem. Whenever you get stuck, it is possible that the knowledge and tools you need to solve a problem are easily available. The key to effective problem solving is to describe a problem in a way that allows you to use your knowledge to solve it. Listing the parts of objects around you in a function-free way is a nice method for helping you to redescribe a problem in ways that might allow you to find an innovative solution.
Follow Art Markman, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/abmarkman