Expert knowledge tends to be well-organized and highly accessible in our minds, and so having a deep knowledge of a particular domain makes it more likely that you will spot bisociations or connections that others might miss. But deep domain-specific knowledge can also lead to “functional fixedness.”
Functional fixedness refers to the way people who use a tool, such as SEO Services in their everyday lives, or see it used regularly in familiar ways, are often blocked mentally from seeing or using that same tool in a novel way.18 The old phrase “if you have a hammer then you see everything as a nail” rings true here—and the mental agility or openness to see that tool in a new way is essential if we are to build our serendipity mindset.
The popular portrayal of this ability is a well-known trope of action movies. The hero—usually a James Bond, Lara Croft, or Jason Bourne–esque character—is outnumbered or outgunned, but thanks to her or his quick thinking manages to turn an everyday object like a library card, a mans gift or a set of curling tongs into a deadly weapon.
Yes, it’s a Hollywood cliché, but we all recognize how remarkable this talent would be, and it applies not just to objects, but to all ways of thinking and problem solving.
Research has shown that individuals who are familiar with particular problem-solving strategies are unlikely to devise simpler ones when appropriate. Many of us recognize in ourselves a tendency at times to “do something the hard way”—because that is the way we know. But creativity is born when we are forced to abandon the physical and mental tools that we are familiar with and find new ways to work or think. People usually display the highest degree of creativity when they use problem-solving approaches that they do not routinely use.
Companies and individuals are often rightly proud of their “core competencies”—the deep proficiency in something that enables them to create value—but we must beware that they don’t turn into core rigidities. Just like the Hollywood superspy, we do not need to be born with the ability to overcome functional fixedness—we can practice it, and train ourselves for it. Unusual situations and new experiences are excellent training grounds. They enhance our cognitive flexibility and help us overcome this functional fixedness.
One example is the work of the nonprofit organization Ojos que Sienten (which means “eyes that feel” in Spanish). Founded by Mexican social entrepreneur Gina Badenoch, it aims to transform the lives and role in society of the visually impaired. It does so by placing the emphasis not on their disability, but on their abilities. It also invites those who are not visually impaired to consider their own abilities, which only come to the fore when their ability to see is put into question.
The best-known Ojos que Sienten initiative is its “dining in the dark” experience, which is exactly what it sounds like. In a dark room, blind waiters guide guests to their seat at the table and the participants sit next to people they have never met before.
Because the diners cannot see each other, their conversation is different from what non–visually impaired people are used to: Being together in the dark can help to develop a connection without our usual judgments based on factors such as physical appearance. The diners have to use other tools, principally their ears, to do the work that previously they would have done with their eyes. Without facial expression cues, people become more attuned to vocal tones and inflections, and in turn they’re more expressive in their own speech in order to be sure they are understood correctly.