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There Is A Sneaky Mental Roadblock That Gets Us All

Written by John Kuder

Table Of Contents

When faced with a challenge or problem in our business, we often rely on our past experiences and mental frameworks to come up with solutions. However, there is a sneaky mental roadblock that can hinder our creativity and innovation – functional fixedness. In this blog post, we will explore the concept of functional fixedness and discuss ways to overcome it to think outside the box and find new approaches to problem-solving.

Understanding Functional Fixedness:

Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits our thinking by associating an object or concept with its typical function or purpose. For example, when we see a pen, our immediate thought is that it’s meant for writing. This bias often serves us well in everyday situations, but it can become a barrier when we need to find unconventional solutions.

Breaking Free from Functional Fixedness:

  1. Perceptional Thinking: One way to overcome functional fixedness is to change our perception of a situation. For instance, a coffee shop owner who wants to increase traffic may think about transforming the space into a co-working area or hosting open mic nights, expanding the coffee shop’s purpose beyond just serving coffee.
  2. Emotional Exploration: Emotional attachment to the familiar can hinder progress. Companies considering rebranding or changing their direction can struggle due to their emotional connection to the past. It’s essential to recognize the emotional barriers and focus on the potential benefits of change.
  3. Cultural Adaptability: Cultural fixedness occurs when we limit ourselves to one cultural perspective or identity. For restaurants, branching out and adding elements of different cuisines to the menu can attract a broader customer base. Embracing diversity and understanding different cultural norms can broaden our perspectives.
  4. Intellectual Flexibility: Intellectual fixedness occurs when we cling to our preconceived definitions or concepts. It’s essential to challenge our definitions and explore new possibilities. For instance, redefining the definition of sales can lead to fresh strategies and innovative approaches.

Thinking Outside the Box:

To think outside the box effectively, it is crucial to define the box and its limitations. Stepping back and gaining perspective is the first step. Think of your current mindset as being immersed in a movie. When you’re sitting too close to the screen, it’s easy to lose awareness of the fact that you’re watching a movie and not actually part of that world. Similarly, stepping back from your familiar thoughts and perspectives allows you to see the bigger picture and consider fresh ideas.

One technique to approach problems with a fresh perspective is the generic parts technique. By breaking down an object into its component parts and redefining them more generally, new possibilities emerge. For example, seeing a candle as wax and a string can expand its potential uses beyond lighting.


Functional fixedness can stifle our creativity and hinder problem-solving. By recognizing this cognitive bias and adopting strategies to overcome it, we can unlock our full potential and discover new solutions.

Embracing fresh perspectives, breaking free from assumptions, and challenging the limitations of our thinking allows us to tackle challenges with creativity and innovation. So, let’s step outside the box and embrace the limitless possibilities that await!

Note: The preceding blog post is generated by AI and may have minimal editing. The transcription is AI generated but has been edited by a human for accuracy. The original video content is entirely human and imperfect.


Picture this, you’re facing a challenge in your business and you’re trying to come up with a solution. Yeah, we always want those solutions. But there’s a sneaky little mental roadblock. No! Yes, and standing in your way. And the funny thing is, it’s something that works for us most of the time. Really? But then it also gets in our way.

So it’s called, and I’ll explain. Stick with us. I hope so. It’s called functional fixedness or fixedness. So think about this, when I’ve got a pen here in my hand, right? What’s the purpose of this pen? To write with. Okay. 99 percent of the time, that’s what it’s for, right?

What if your back itches? Can you use it to scratch your back? Sure. Functional fixedness, how it works for us, is we see a pen and we think, write, right? We don’t have to, we don’t have to think any further. We just, we think write and we use the pen to write. It’s made for something and we use it for that.

Okay. Okay? I’ll go with that. What else? Well, so this now we’re getting into the part of where this cognitive bias turns into kind of like, feels like confession time for me because I get caught in the bias part of it so much, right? And it’s this thing of thinking that things can only be used for the what they’re designed for.

Yes. No, you’re gonna recognize. I knew as soon as I said it you’d recognize it. So think of the really thing that comes to mind for me so much is think of using a butter knife as a screwdriver, right? Absolutely. One of my favorite things to do. Okay, and for any kind of knife for many It’s really very situational.

 If you’ve got a Phillips head screw, that’s got the little cross point. Mm-Hmm. cross. You really want a cross point screwdriver. I mean, that’s what’s made for the job. But you could use the point of a sharp knife. Absolutely. Here’s the problem. If you really have to turn put a lot of pressure on it.

Yeah. Put a torque on it, you’re, you’ve, now, you’re gonna either bend or break the point off the knife or scratch the groove. Or cut yourself or a hundred other things. The tool that’s made for the job is what’s really most functionally effective. If we didn’t have that, we could do other things, right?

There are other things to do. You can use, for a Phillips head, you can use a small straight blade screwdriver. Absolutely. And just, it just fills two of the four grooves. Uh, depending on how big the groove is, you can use a dime. I’ve done that too. Oh, okay. Now that would, a dime, I’ve, I can think of, I think of more in terms of a a straight, a slot.

Straight I’ve done it with both. Really? Okay. Oh, heck yeah. Okay. So that’s, we just really went down the rabbit hole with that. That’s a really simple example of using things, of how we think about using things. Yeah, I’ve never had the right tool to do the job 90 percent of the time. And I would say that you are much less prone to this functional fixedness than I am.

I agree. In, in, in. In that arena, in that particular arena of using objects. Okay, but there’s four different areas that this can affect us. Oh yeah. Now we’re getting funky. Okay. Okay. How about perceptual? Sorry, perceptional. That’s a different word. New one for me. Perceptional. An example of that, how we perceive a situation.

An example is a coffee shop owner wants to, have more people in his store, increase the traffic. And because he’s so focused on the, the coffee shop is a coffee shop. So therefore, if I’m going to have more people, I need to have more coffee drinks to offer. I need to have, I need to add more things to the menu.

But what if he, expanded his thinking a little bit and didn’t just think about the menu and the kind of the design purpose of the, and thought about just the space? What if he, during his off hours, he did some things to really encourage it as a co working space? Oh, okay. And really, You can even have open mic at night.

You could do all sorts of we’ve seen Starbucks. A lot of people go to Starbucks and work. Right. They can also go to McDonald’s and work. There’s free Wi Fi there. But the point is, thinking about the space differently other than just a coffee shop. So that perception of the space.

Okay. What about an emotional space? And the emotional realm of how this might, what fits and what doesn’t. Okay. Okay. The emotional part of it, an example would be a company that is considering a rebranding, whether it’s just logo and their letterhead and things like that or it’s actually redefining the direction of the company.

Okay. Right. And the, so the emotional attachment. To the, yeah, we’ve had that too. To the way things have been, to that, to the past and the history of the company could, and it could only be one way. Be a very much a an impediment a block right a block to making that change Even though the change could be very beneficial to the company.

So that’s Diversification it’s a different. I mean you can argue that these overlap and sure they do because they’re all about how we think but Right, but this that emotional aspect Are you running through all of them when you’re doing the screwdriver the butter knife is a screwdriver?

You’re not attached emotionally attached to The, your favorite screwdriver that you have to use and you can’t use the butter knife because that’d be cheating. Right?

Cultural. Cultural is another one. Okay, and get back to a restaurant. A a restaurant that’s defined themselves as having just one cuisine. Oh, yeah. Adding elements of another, of a different cuisine or items on the menu from a different cuisine. Could be perceived by that person as being untrue to the brand, to the concept or whatever.

So that’s cultural. Cultural would be, also, political correctness, other things. I, I just, good examples were hard to come by. True. Okay. And then intellectual. And this is more about. What about definition rather than purpose? So the screwdriver is more about purpose, things are, it’s made for this, right?

What about in a business setting, the person running the business decides that or has this intellectual concept of what sales is, a definition of sales. Sales is telling people what they, what they need to know about our product and you need to get out there and tell people all about our product.

Because the more you tell people about our product, the more they’re going to want it. That’s not true. But that’s, so that’s that intellectual, box. This is and that leads me to the next thing. So how do we overcome this? And we have to think outside the box. Oh yeah. We just have to think outside the box.

But how do we do that? That’s a great, that’s a great phrase. It’s become very trite, it’s a saying, but what does it really mean? Yeah. Well, so think outside the box. The first thing we got to do is define the box. What is the box? What are the edges? Where’s the limits? And then what’s outside that?

So that in itself, it requires a stepping back, right? I mean, if you’re, another metaphor I love is, in a movie, in the movie. If you’re in a movie theater and with that big screen, especially if you’re in one of the front or more front rows, closer rows to the screen, you can, for a bit, loose.

Awareness of the fact that you’re not in that movie, in that world of that movie, right? And so there was a, the phrase I learned was mind the edges. It was like, perceptually stepping back and noticing the edges of the screen and that there’s something beyond that, that you’re not actually in that world.

So that’s, that’s a way of getting outside the box. Okay. Okay. It’s thinking outside the boxes, stepping back from whatever’s familiar, whatever came to mind first. And again, most of the time that works for us. You know, we see a screw, we think screwdriver. Yes, most of the time that works. But when we’re trying to, when something that we’re, a problem we’re trying to solve.

It is, we need a new approach. We need something. When we realize that what we, the way we’ve been doing things isn’t working and we need something new, then is when we need to let go of the familiar and really just try to look at it like, I’ve never, I don’t have, I’ve never done this before.

The pretend that the tools or the things that I’ve done before don’t exist. And what would I do? If it didn’t, if that didn’t exist, how would I approach this? What else, what would that, how could I look at this with completely fresh eyes? One, and one way of doing that was to, it was called the generic parts technique.

And it was looking at something and breaking it down, not only to its component parts but then redefining those even more generally. Okay, and a great example was a candle. Okay. Got a candle. I don’t have one here, but candle. Okay. It’s a thing, right? You break it down. Well, it’s Never mind. It’s not coming.

We’re going to have an avalanche if we take the candle loose. So the candle, is you’ve got a wick with wax around it. So the component parts on the surface are wax and wick. Okay. Here’s a problem. Wick. Yeah? The name implies a function. You have to use it in a certain way. Okay. If you didn’t think of it as a wick, what else might you think of it as?

Lightning point? How about string? Oh, okay. Oh, we’re talking about that. Okay. It’s more component. It’s more generic, calling it a wick, naming it a wick, gives it a particular function. And a particular thing that you have to buy. And it locks us, it puts us in that box. You only can look at it.

We, yeah. A wick is something you light, it burns, it, it has a very function and now we’re thinking only about light. Okay. But we’ve got this thing. What if we just call it a string? Well then it could be used to tie something. It could be, and breaking it even more further down than that, what if you looked at the string as a bunch of fibers that were woven together?

Okay. Okay. And then something that you could Now they could be separated. True. They could be, it could be, that fiber could be turned into something else. True. You could knit with it. You could. Right. So, that’s this idea of breaking into component parts or the generic parts and generic in terms of labeling as well as their physical separation.

 This cognitive bias was named, first defined in 1945 and I forgot the name of the guy that did it, but it was he did an experiment when he got a bunch of people together. Okay. Okay. And he gave them a box or cardboard box of thumbtacks. Okay. He gave him a candle and he gave him a book of matches and he and the task he gave them was attach the candle to the wall using these what he gave him attach the candle to the wall so that you could light it and not have the wax drip on the floor or down the wall.

And it was a box of tacks. A cardboard box full of tacks. A candle. And matches. Candle and matches. And how did he do that, darling? This is, it’s such a great illustration of the problem. The cognitive bias is that the people, when, and he tried it two different ways. When he gave them a box, the box of tacks, and I should have described it better that way.

A box of tacks. They saw it as a box of tacks. They didn’t see the box and the tacks separately. They saw the box simply as containing the tacks. When he gave them the box, an empty cardboard box and a pile of tacks, Oh, then they knew what to do. Then they very quickly took a tack, attached the, to the the box to the wall and set the candle in it and lit it.

There you go. Boom. , again, separating the component or the generic parts, the box separate from the tacks. Simple, brilliant, but this is how we lock ourselves into our thinking and this is how we can look at this differently and look at our thinking differently when we need to solve a problem in our business. And that’s what we’re here for. And we look forward to seeing you in another video and I’ll see you soon.

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