The Problem with Functional Fixedness in Creativity

«I don’t care about what something was designed to do, I care about what it can do.»
Gene Kranz in «Apollo 13»

There’s an old assessment center / management retreat task in which a group of people have to decide which ten items of a list of 50 or 100 items to take on a deserted island.

Often, one of these items is a parachute. And more often than not, the group will quickly discard the parachute. After all, they are not in a plane that’s going to crash, nor were there enough chutes for all of them.

So what’s the use?

In reality, the parachute is one of the most useful items you can take with you.

Among others, a parachute provides you with:

  • long lengths of very tough rope,
  • a water-resistant to water-proof plane (which can be used to transport water),
  • a backpack, and
  • metal pieces.

The problem here is functional fixedness. People see what is there — they see the parachute. They see how it is used, and thus that it is useless to them. What they do not see is what it is composed of, what it’s elements can do, what it can be used for.

And to solve many problems creatively, you have to do exactly that — like the quote in the beginning said beautifully — see not what something was designed to do, but what is actually is. What it consists of. And with that, you can see what else it can do. Because sometimes, even a hammer only looks like a hammer.