How We Obstruct Insights and
Creative Thinking: Fixations


Of course if insights and creative thinking were easy, then everybody would be doing it. But the thing to be aware of is that often we obstruct it, albeit unwittingly. Organizations all say they need fresh ideas and innovations to sustain profits. But they aren’t making it easy for people to have ideas, or to express them.

In global studies scientists are finding that overall, people’s IQ scores are rising but their creativity scores are declining. Perhaps our schools and workplaces aren’t conducive to expanding creative thinking.

Part of this is force of habit: Schools and organizations love predictability yet they parrot slogans to encourage “out-of-the-box” thinking. Think about your own workplace. Do they recoil from surprises, crave perfection and extol the virtues of error-free work?

The perfection and predictability traps are what stifle creative thinking and obstruct intuitions and insights. Deadlines, rewards and incentives, and other motivational ideas rarely work to stimulate “aha” moments. So let’s address one element that we all fall prey to: fixating on the wrong problem.

Fixation Thinking

Typically a problem leads to an impasse because people are asking the wrong question. Einstein is reported to have said that if you gave him an hour to solve a problem, he’d use the first 55 minutes to consider if he were asking the right question.

When you focus on misleading features, you risk going down rabbit holes. We need to become more aware of the mental traps that cause us to fixate on the wrong problem and avoid them in favor of alternative interpretations.

Many years ago, people in a high rise building complained about the slowness of the elevators. So the building’s owners brought in engineers to solve the problem. They all said the same thing: it would cost a great deal of money and wouldn’t result in a noticeable increase in speed.

It seemed to be a hopeless engineering problem and so people continued to complain. Another consultant offered a different kind of solution: Line the elevator cars and doors with mirrors. As a result, people were distracted by looking at themselves and stopped noticing the passage of time. The complaints ceased.

The problem was reframed from an engineering problem to a psychological one. To do so, you have to look thoroughly at the problem statement: “The elevators are slow and people are complaining.”

The problem has two parts and the best solution was found by addressing the second part, people were complaining. To do this you pay attention to all the parts of the problem.

Let me ask you then, what problem are you looking at from the wrong perspective? What if you focused elsewhere? How many parts of a problem can you see, and how many different questions should you be asking?

As always, I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me here and on LinkedIn.

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