Sources of Blocking

1. Functional Fixation. As we mentioned earlier, functional fixation arises when someone is unable to see beyond the historical or accepted use for an item, often identified by its name or label. Thus, for example, a screwdriver is a tool for tightening or loosening screws, just as its name says. A person suffering from functional fixation would be unable to see any other uses for the item. But, of course, a screwdriver can also be used as a paint can opener, an ice pick, a plumb bob, a paper weight, and so on.

Similarly, to see a length of water pipe and to think only of water pipe may block your thinking if you are need of pry bar, a blow gun, a plant prop, a flag pole, a fishing rod, a measuring stick, or something else that the pipe might serve for. An interesting example of how people are almost by nature functionally fixated comes from an experiment. Several people were placed in a room where a short length of pipe containing a ping pong ball was anchored in the floor. The task of the people was to remove the ball from the pipe without damaging either. Several sets of people were given this same task. For some of the sets, a bucket of water was placed on the floor. When this was the case, over 80 percent of the groups solved the problem by pouring water into the pipe and floating the ball out. For some of the other sets, a pitcher of ice water and some drinking glasses were placed on a table in the room. When this was the case, fewer than 40 percent of the groups solved the problem by using the water in the pitcher. The pitcher of water and the drinking glasses so fixated them on the idea of refreshment, that they could not see beyond the ostensible purpose of the pitcher to its use as a solution to their problem.

2. Adequacy Blocking. A second major inhibitor of creativity is the problem of adequacy. When something works, is good enough, serves the purpose, we tend not to see any deficiencies. That a solution is suboptimal does not occur to us if the solution works--we become blocked by its adequacy.

There are three basic blockages in life. The first is the blockage of a gap, the missing part, the limited vision, the seeming end. We become blocked when the road runs out, when we can't see any further, when we get "to the end of the rope." In such a case, we must have the vision necessary to see beyond the gap to bridge it. The second kind of block is that of an obstacle, something in our way. To proceed, we have to remove the obstacle, or go over, under, around, or through it. These kinds of blocks are quite common and obvious and we recognize them often precisely because they are visible. We know when one of these blocks hinders our progress. But the third kind of block, the adequacy block, is often overlooked because it is essentially invisible. We don't see the block because there is nothing in the way. Because a particular route to the mall works fine, we don't think of looking for alternative routes. Because a particular method of studying gets us passing grades, we don't look for better methods. The same is true for farming, manufacturing, teaching, and many other endeavors. Edward de Bono, in his book Lateral Thinking says pointedly,

Adequate is always good enough. It is interesting that in our thinking we have developed methods for dealing with things that are wrong but no methods for dealing with things that are right. When something is wrong we explore further. When something is right our thinking comes to a halt. That is why we need lateral thinking [his term for creativity] to break through this adequacy block and restructure patterns even when there is no need to do so. An interesting thinking habit to develop that will help reduce adequacy blocking is the "yes, and" technique. When you find a solution, new or old, think, "Yes, this is a good and workable solution, and what else might work?" Or, "Yes, this is great, and is there something better?" Or, "Yes, this is a good way to do that, and can we find another?" Note that this technique deliberately eliminates the negative reaction of objecting that a "Yes but" mindset would create.

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