Tips on Thinking Outside the Box Have you ever been stuck trying to solve a problem? Do you want to be known as an innovator? If so, a new article has some suggestions and advice on problem-solving and creative thinking.

In the article, Tony McCaffrey, a psychology PhD from the University of Massachusetts, explores methods to overcome ‘functional fixedness’ — the tendency to fixate on the common use of an object or its parts.

McCaffrey says this tendency is a common barrier to innovation. ”It hinders people from solving problems.” McCaffrey has developed a systematic way to overcoming the hurdle: the “generic parts technique” (GPT).

He describes the method in the latest issue of Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.

The article also reports on McCaffrey’s test of GPT’s effectiveness. Its results: People trained in GPT solved eight problems 67 percent more often than those who weren’t trained, and the first group solved them more than 8 times out of 10.

GPT is eloquent and simple. “For each object in your problem, you break it into parts and ask two questions,” explains McCaffrey, who is now a post-doctoral fellow in UMass’s engineering department.

  1. Can it be broken down further?
  2. Does my description of the part imply a use?

Imagine that you are given two steel rings and told to make a figure-8 out of them. Your tools? A candle and a match.

Melted wax is sticky, but the wax isn’t strong enough to hold the rings together. What about the other part of the candle? The wick. The word implies a use: Wicks are set afire to give light.

“That tends to hinder people’s ability to think of alternative uses for this part,” says McCaffrey.

Think of the wick more generically as a piece of string and the string as strands of cotton and you’re liberated. Now you can remove the wick and tie the two rings together.

McCaffrey has drawn his insights by analyzing 1,001 historically inventions in which the innovator discovered an obscure feature or an obscure function.

McCaffrey cites a recent invention to solve a modern problem. “In this very poor section of the Philippines, people living in shanties were using electric lights inside while it was sunny outside,” he says. How to save money on electricity?

“Take a 2-liter Coke bottle, stick it through a hole in the roof, fill it with water. The water reflects the light around the inside the house.” A simple idea, using an overlooked feature of water: “It refracts light 360 degrees.”

Final tips for innovation: break things down into parts, look for the simple and do not be limited by preconceived perceptions.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Man with box on his head photo by shutterstock.