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Ever wondered why it is so difficult for you to be truly innovative, to solve problems in a truly novel way?  Well, you aren’t alone.  It turns out that your brain is conspiring against you.

From a psychological perspective there are three cognitive barriers to innovation: functional fixedness, design fixation and goal fixedness. 

Functional fixedness refers to our tendency to only see an object in the way it has been traditionally been used.  Design fixation refers to the tendency for us to fixate on the way a product or process is currently designed, making it extremely difficult to come up with a completely new approach.  Finally, goal fixedness refers to the simple fact that the way a goal is phrased will often narrow our thinking. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Functional Fixedness

Functional fixedness refers to our tendency to only see and use objects in the way that we have always traditionally done so – in other words we see the product’s use, rather than the product itself.

In the first half of the 20thcentury, a Gestalt psychologist called Karl Duncker developed what became known as Duncker’s Candle Problem.  Only published after his death, it is a cognitive performance test that measures the influence of functional fixedness on a person’s problem-solving capability.  Subjects are provided with a book of matches, a candle and a box of drawing pins (thumb tacks to any Americans in the group).  They are then asked to come up with a way to fix the candle to a wooden wall in such a way that now wax drips onto the carpet.

We use a slightly different approach (one candle, a box of matches and a drawing pin) and have seen all sorts of solutions being proposed whenever we have run these sessions.  The solution in our version is to pull the match tray out of the sleeve, empty the matches out, light the candle and drip wax into the tray, place the candle on the melted wax and then use the drawing pin to fix the tray and candle to the wall.  The challenge is that, in order to solve the problem, you have to look at the matchbox differently.  You have the deconstruct it into its component parts (sleeve, tray and matches) to solve the problem.

So, how do we overcome functional fixedness? Well, the above example provides us with a clue – we deconstruct the item into its component parts and use the broadest possible terms to describe them.  By stripping the item down and changing how we describe each component, we start to see the items themselves, rather than the item’s use.  This makes it easier for us to overcome functional fixedness and come up with innovative solutions to the challenge that we are facing.

Design Fixation

Have you ever been handed a product or a process and been asked to completely redesign it?  If so, just how difficult did you find it?

I recently did a piece of work with a team who were tasked to redesign and rewrite a series of standard operating procedures (SOPs), making them simpler and easier to understand. As a first step, all the members of the team read the existing SOPs and then found it extremely difficult to come up with something new because they found themselves fixating on the current process.  The result was an evolution, rather than revolution of the process. The team had just encountered the second of our cognitive barriers to innovation – design fixation, peoples’ tendency to fixate on the features of the current design and so limit their ability to think creatively.

So, how did we help them overcome design fixation?  Well, we went back to basics and deconstructed each process, mapping it out from scratch using post-it notes stuck up on the glass wall of one of the meeting rooms. We broke everything down into the smallest individual steps, identified all roadblocks and bottlenecks and then challenged every step, moving post-it notes around as required.  This visual approach and the constant challenge, using root cause analysis (Toyoda’s 5 Why’s Technique) where applicable, allowed the team to come up with a simpler, more efficient and easily understood process.

Goal Fixedness

Goal fixedness is the cognitive barrier that I find most interesting.  Simply put, the way we phrase a goal will influence the way we go about solving a problem.  When we phrase a goal using specific terms, we often narrow peoples’ thinking.

An example might be if I gave you a piece of paper and asked you to adhere it to the wall.  The solutions you suggest will likely be influenced by the word “adhere” and so your suggestions may involve glue, Prestik (Bluetack for any Brits in the room), Sellotape or similar adhesive products. If I now use a broader term such as “fasten” or “fix”, rather than “adhere”, you may come up with a broader range of alternative solutions.  Your alternatives may now include all of the previous solutions, but you may also suggest using a drawing pin, a nail, Velcro, staples, a screw and so on.

Simply by using a broader term to describe the goal, you can dramatically expand the range of potential solutions to your particular challenge.  Try it, you’ll be surprised at just how many more alternatives you and your team to suggest.


The three cognitive barriers to innovation affect each of us every day, potentially reducing our effectiveness to think differently about the challenges we face and the problems that we need to solve. The good news is that they really are easily mitigated and overcome by using the simple techniques mentioned above.


McCaffrey T. and Pearson J. (2015) “Find innovation where you least expect it”.  Harvard Business Review (December Edition)