Is your brainstorming costing you money?


Problem-solving and brainstorming in a rut?

Problem-solving and brainstorming in a rut?

When thinking gets stuck

I’m sure you’ve seen it.

You know, when the team is called together around the table to brainstorm. You’re all supposed to suggest brilliantly clever ideas in enormous quantities without necessarily judging or condemning any other ideas

Except it doesn’t really work that well. Does it?

Usually, the classic brainstorm becomes a shoutfest where the earliest, loudest voices get the most airtime and grab the most attention, and subsequent ideas become variations on the already established themes.

By and large, if this is your experience of brainstorming, you’ll appreciate it doesn’t work. You’ll also see how, once we have a concept in mind, we can easily get fixed on it.

Like candles and pliers.

A cognitive problem

Duncker's (1945) candle problem

Duncker’s (1945) candle problem

Here’s a puzzle. If you have a candle, some matches and a box of thumbtacks, how would you attach the candle to the wall?

This is a great old puzzle that illustrates the simple end of a classic cognitive problem. For sure you’ve had it happen to you, and no doubt you’ve witnessed it. It’s also a problem in the workplace where, increasingly, creativity is a highly-prized ability.

And so to overcome this problem we have a brainstorm…

The problem is that once we see something one way, it can be remarkably difficult to see it another way.

The candle problem solution

The candle problem solution

In this case, we often see that the items need to be used in only one way. Properly, this is known as functional fixedness, where the function of something is seen to be fixed.

Recognising an alternate use or, more conceptually speaking, an alternate combination of information, can take quite some effort.

Here’s another one

This is another classic.

The two cords problem

The two cords problem

Now that you know to look for multiple uses of items, see how you go.

In this puzzle, unimaginatively called the two cords problem, you have two cords hanging from the ceiling.

Your goal is to grab hold of both cords, but they aren’t long enough for you to hold one, and then grab the other. On a nearby table are some pliers. They don’t help you reach either, but you’ll try it!

What will you do?

I’m sure you figured it out.

The two cords solution

The two cords solution

The trick here is to see the pliers simply as a heavy weight, rather than a tool for holding things, or an extension of your own arm and reach.

If you tie the pliers to one of the ropes, you can then use their weight to swing the rope.

You can now take hold of the stationary rope and then catch the swinging rope.

Merely understanding that we make this error can help us overcome it. So often though, we simply get stuck, and think in ever-decreasing circles.

Does it limit you?

This stuckness can manifest itself in many ways, including one known as the Einstellung effect. Merim Bilalić (Department of Psychology, University of Klagenfurt, Austria) explains in a recently published study.

“Our brain generally prefers a familiar, trusted solution, rather than exploring alternatives.” As a result, we’ll stick with the tried and true, or just fail to identify other possibilities.

Bilalić continues, noting that this bias can present in any number of areas. A quick bit of reflection would show you possibilities for errors in medical diagnoses, corporate decisions, relationship conflicts, career decisions, day to day problem solving, crime investigation, teaching and so forth.

“We believe that we generally approach problems with an open mind. However, the brain unconsciously steers our attention towards previously stored knowledge. Any information that does not match the solution or the theory we have already internalized, tends to be ignored or masked.”

Or are we fooling ourselves?

The brain strives for efficiency, so will resort to its ‘go to solutions’ rather than develop new ones. Sometimes this is enormously beneficial, as you don’t have to create new things for familiar situations. Additionally, pattern recognition is something that the brain is astonishingly good at.

On the other hand, at times it can feel as if your brain is working against you by doing the very things it’s so good at.

For example, Bilalić’s team noted the problem in chess players who persisted with a more complex strategy, even when shown a simpler one. Moreover, eye tracking technology showed they were looking only at the squares that supported their view.

But not only did they keep their gaze on squares they had already identified as part of their move sequence, they were adamant that they had not! They insisted they had looked for, and considered other alternatives but were, in reality, blind to them (nod to the confirmation bias and inattentional blindness here too).

Consequently, you can see how this might affect creativity, problem solving and decision making in many domains.

So here’s the take home bit

In the workplace, in the traditional brainstorming session we looked at to begin with, options quickly become limited and views fixed. We tend to think about things based on existing relationships and patterns, and tend to not consider alternative combinations of information.

Alternatives are really only variations of an early idea. Worse, we might fail to consider any real alternatives and yet fool ourselves into thinking that we have. Rather than brainstorming helping us move out of a stuck situation, our cognitive weaknesses can foster more of the same.

I would wager there are bottom line impacts if we trust this process for development and innovation.

What do you think?

For seriously effective creativity, drop us a line at the Brain Fitness Institute.

Key words

Einstellung effect, cognitive bias, functional fixedness

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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