Why We Can’t See What’s Right in Front of Us


Tony McCaffrey

TONY MCCAFFREY

http://blogs.hbr.org/

Tony McCaffrey developed the Obscure Features Hypothesis for innovation as his dissertation in cognitive psychology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is currently funded by the National Science Foundation’s Center for e-Design to implement his innovation-enhancing techniques in software. Beta testing will begin in summer 2012.

The most famous cognitive obstacle to innovation is functional fixedness — an idea first articulated in the 1930s by Karl Duncker — in which people tend to fixate on the common use of an object. For example, the people on the Titanic overlooked the possibility that the iceberg could have been their lifeboat. Newspapers from the time estimated the size of the iceberg to be between 50-100 feet high and 200-400 feet long. Titanic was navigable for awhile and could have pulled aside the iceberg. Many people could have climbed aboard it to find flat places to stay out of the water for the four hours before help arrived. Fixated on the fact that icebergs sink ships, people overlooked the size and shape of the iceberg (plus the fact that it would not sink).

More mundane examples: in a pinch, people have trouble seeing that a plastic lawn chair could be used as a paddle (turn it over, grab two legs, and start rowing) or that a candle wick could be used to tie things together (scrape the wax away to free the string).

The problem is we tend to just see an object’s use, not the object itself. When we see a common object, the motor cortex of our brain activates in anticipation of using the object in the common way. Part of the meaning of an object is getting ready to use it. If a type of feature is not important for its common use, then we are not cognizant of it. The result: our brain’s incredible inertia to move toward the common. Efficient for everyday life, this automatic neural response is the enemy of innovation.

My research has shown that people overlook about two-thirds of the types of features that an object possesses. Not two-thirds of the features, but two-thirds of the types of features. They ignore whole categories that are not relevant to the object’s common use (e.g., motion, symmetry, texture, and many others ). In one study, we had fifteen people list as many features and associations as they could for fourteen common objects (e.g., candle and broom). We then classified their responses into a newly developed 32-category system of the types of features for physical objects. On average people overlooked 20.7 of the 32 categories (64.7%).

This presents an enormous barrier to coming up with new ideas.

After studying creativity for many years, I’ve come up with a way to help break through functional fixedness, with what I call the generic parts technique. Break each object into its parts and ask two questions: Can it broken down further? Does your description imply a use? If so, describe it more generically. Calling something an iceberg generally implies hitting and sinking ships. Describing it more generically as a floating surface 200-400 feet long does not. This technique systematically strips away the layers of preconceived uses from the object and all its parts. My data show that along the way, alternative uses more easily emerge.

The Obscure Features Hypothesis approach to innovation articulates the many ways that our neural system automatically generates meaning and then constructs counter techniques to uncover what is overlooked. Once the obscure is unearthed, then innovation is not far away. Innovation is putting the obscure to work for something useful.

This sounds theoretically promising, but we challenged ourselves to use our approach to produce something new. Candles have been around for 5,000 years, so you might think that every type of candle has already been invented. But we demonstrated that once the obscure features of a candle were unearthed, multiple new designs based on those obscure features were soon to follow. We took the candle results and in two one-hour sessions built ten new candle designs based exclusively on the overlooked types of features. Two candle companies confirmed that nine of the ten designs were indeed novel, and one company has licensed one of the designs from us and is interested in others.

Innovative solutions — beyond new kinds of candles — are generally built upon an obscure feature of your problem. If the key feature were commonly noticed, most likely the problem would have been solved long ago. Techniques such as the generic parts technique help uncover the obscure features that are crucial for innovation.

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