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Mental Models
Featured Models

Functional Fixedness

Things were better when you were 5-years-old.  According to the research, that’s the age when you most used objects around you in a truly creative way to achieve your goals. So your spoon transformed into a catapult; your family dog into a movable ladder; and your parent’s mobile phone into a high-tech submarine.  Then you got old. The world became more known, more familiar... and Functional Fixedness kicked in.  Functional Fixedness is a heuristic that prevents you from using familiar objects in new or innovative ways. SACRIFICING CREATIVITY FOR SPEED. Like any heuristic, Functional Fixedness serves an important purpose. It means you don’t have to expend serious cognitive effort when picking up a hammer, jumping into a car, or seeing a kettle. Instead, your Fast Thinking mind can identify and use those objects efficiently and effectively. And, like any heuristic, this strength can also become a limiting bias — particularly when you need to innovate. Breaking out of Functional Fixedness will take conscious effort and systems to interrupt your tendency to ‘stereotype’ the objects around you. Further, the 5-year-old story at the lead of this summary is a reminder that Functional Fixedness tends to be strengthened with greater knowledge or experience in a particular domain.  IMPLICATIONS FOR BUSINESS - CREATIVE PIVOTING. On a business level, Functional Fixedness will likely be the difference between irrelevancy and realising innovative new approaches.  This will often consist of 'pivoting' — think the gin companies that moved to disinfectant production during Covid, or the amazing backstory to tech startup Slack — see the In Practice section below for more on both.  The point is that breaking Functional Fixedness allows businesses to use existing capital, equipment, markets and resources in new and unexpected ways to stay relevant.  IMPLICATIONS FOR YOU — CREATIVE PROBLEM-SOLVING. On a personal level, consciously interrupting it will enable you to use familiar objects and tools in creative ways to achieve your goals. Want to tighten that screw but can’t find your screwdriver? Rather than spending the next hour searching, simply use the coin in your pocket.  It also helps you to truly value and make the best use of the options currently at your disposal — see the In Practice section below for the classic Candle Problem for a tale of 'out of the box thinking.'  On an interpersonal level, it explains your tendency to stereotype people and their behaviour or messages. For example, that obnoxious person who you normally avoid might actually provide you with insightful feedback one day — you’ll miss it unless you challenge Functional Fixedness.  IN YOUR LATTICEWORK. You can better understand Functional Fixedness in the context of an understanding of Mental Models. Your fixed view of how to use a hammer is simply reflective of a mental model you have of that object. And, like all mental models, it’s useful to consider the Map vs Territory to understand that every object is more than your simplified mental representation of it.  As a heuristic, Functional Fixedness can be traced back to Fast and Slow Thinking. In terms of specifics, it shares some elements with the Confirmation Heuristic, in that it leads you to assert your existing beliefs and mental models in a given situation. In terms of countering this heuristic, you might apply First Principles or even Idea Sex — see Actionable Takeaways below for more. It also might challenge the Sunk Cost Fallacy, by finding ways to actually realise the value of past investments. And finally, on a business and even economic level, this model has some links to Creative Destruction, in which existing models actually drive the creation of new ones.

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