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Become greener by breaking fixedness

Amnon and I presented last week in Greener by Design (GbD) in San Francisco, subtitled “Greener Products for Leaner Times”.  Our innovation message for companies working on going greener was to focus on finding and tackling their fixedness.

Cognitive Fixedness, first defined by psychologist Karl Duncker, prevents individuals and companies from creating new configurations in the systems they manage.  This often blocks us from seeing potential efficiencies and material reduction, and breakthrough solutions to problems.  SIT tools help break 3 kinds of cognitive fixedness:

1. Structural – The tendency to view products and systems as a complete gestalt.  Many of SIT’s tools help break this particular fixedness.  The following water saving toilet (click to check out the cool animation!) was developed by Villeroy-Boch in an SIT workshop.  Multiplying the water streams resulted in more pressure in each stream, therefore requiring less water.  This product won the ISH Innovation Prize and was chosen by Deutsche Bank in its transformation of its HQ to be the most environmentally friendly high-rises in Europe.

2. Functional – Seeing objects as capable only of fulfilling their original function.  SIT uses the Task Unification tool to help innovators find new uses for existing resources, thus forcing them find new functions for available objects and tackle functional fixedness.  My previous post described several such uses of unexpected resources for generating energy.

3. Relational – The tendency to view relationships and dependencies between variables of a situation as static and permanent.  Assif Strategies, our partners in Greener by Design, described the following case study in the conference: A bus company’s emissions were well above calculated expectations.  They had 100 old buses and 50 new ones, and 400 drivers. Assif discovered that drivers were allowed to select both their buses and their routes based on seniority. Naturally they chose the easier routes (that had less stops and fewer shifts) and the newer buses. The relationship that resulted was that the older buses drove the stop and go routes on 3 shifts, while the new ones drove more continuously and were parked at night, obviously resulting in much higher emissions than necessary. Breaking this relational fixedness required a major cultural change in the company, but by creating a new relationship within existing available resources, the bus company was able to reduce over 10% of its emissions.  Along with some other simple changes, it achieved a total reduction of 50%.

Watch this short video for a new type of green fixedness… :-)

The challenge of breaking fixedness is threefold.  First, the innovator must recognize that they could be suffering from cognitive fixedness, and not seeing the entire potential “playing field”.  Second, after the innovator recognizes certain underlying assumptions in the system in question, they must accept that these can be changed, and not take them for granted, because “this is how we always did it”, or “this is how it must be done”.  Lastly, the innovator must be flexible about the structure, functions and relationships between the system’s elements in order to generate new forms that can lead to new thinking and new solutions.

This concept ties in well to the message of the charismatic keynotes in the conference, who all essentially break a critical underlying assumption about our industry or society: from William McDonough (Cradle to Cradle, MDBC) who questions why can’t a building be as smart as a tree, creating oxygen, food and shelter, to Tom Szaky (TerraCycle) who challenges the entire concept of garbage, to the point that he “no longer sees trash, only cash”, and to David de Rothschild, who endeavors to cross the Pacific Ocean on the Plastiki (homage to the Kon Tiki, of course) using the ocean’s most prevalent waste as means of transportation.

More on fixedness here.

2 Responses to “Become greener by breaking fixedness”


  1. 1 Fabian Szulanski

    Great post. I bet that relational fixedness is the most difficult to dissolve. Are social network diagrams, influence diagrams, or other visual tools generally used for bringing into surface the existing relationships?
    Regards,
    Fabian

  2. 2 Shlomit Tassa

    Thank you, Fabian.

    We also believe that relational is the most difficult, first to identify and then to modify.

    As for your question, we usually work with simple matrices that line up variables against one another, but as the matrices tend to be huge, a visual solution could certainly be easier to digest.

    I’ll get back to you on that!
    Shlomit

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