“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Marshall McLuhan

The most challenging aspect about innovating is rooted in a concept called fixedness. Fixedness is the inability to realize that something known to have a particular use may also be used to perform other functions. When one is faced with a new problem, fixedness blocks one’s ability to use old tools in novel ways. Psychologist Karl Duncker coined the term functional fixedness for describing the difficulties in visual perception and problem solving that arise when one element of a whole situation has a (fixed) function which has to be changed for making the correct perception or for finding solutions. In his famous “candle problem” the situation was defined by the objects: a box of candles, a box of thumb-tacks and a book of matches. The task was to fix the candles on the wall without any additional elements. The difficulty of this problem arises from the functional fixedness of the candle box. It is a container in the problem situation but must be used as a shelf in the solution situation.

Roni Horiwitz of S.I.T. puts it this way:  “It’s almost impossible for the human brain to produce a really fresh and unique thought. Every thought, opinion or idea is somehow connected to previous concepts stored in the brain.”  Because of this, we are often unable to see the solution to a problem although it stares us in the face. We are too connected to what we knew previously. We not only can’t let it go, but we try very hard to anchor around it to explain what is going on.

Fixedness is insidious. It affects how we think about and see virtually every part of our lives. At work, we have fixedness about our products and services, out customers and competitors, and our future opportunities. The most damaging form of fixedness is when we are stuck on our current business model. We cannot see past what is working today. We stop challenging our assumptions. We continue to believe what was once true is still true. In the end, it is this perpetual blind spot that is most dangerous to our innovation potential.

Customers have fixedness, too. Customers have a limited view of the future, they have well-entrenched notions of how the world works, and they suffer from the same blind spot we do. Yet we continue to seek the “Voice of the Customer” as though a divine intervention will break through this fixedness so they can offer new ideas.

Fortunately, there is a way to address it. The way to break fixedness is to use structured innovation tools and principles that make you see problems and opportunities in new ways. Remember the classic Will Rogers quote:

It’s not what you don’t know that will get you. It’s what you know that ain’t so.”

Or was it Mark Twain?