Imagine driving down a street and suddenly you see a bus barreling towards you at 60 miles per hour. What do you do? You don’t think, you just instinctively swerve out the way. You do this because those instincts of survival are ingrained in you. It’s an evolutionary mechanism for keeping you safe and alive.

Fixedness is also an evolutionary mechanism. It is the cognitive biases for what you know to be true. If you swerve your car out of the way of the bus, you will live. And while fixedness can be incredibly important for survival, it can certainly become a hinderance when you are tasked with brainstorming innovative solutions to common problems. Fixedness can cloud our judgement and not allow us to see beyond what we already assume. To overcome this barrier, we first need to identify the type of fixedness that may exist with regards to our problem at hand. The following are two common types of fixedness: functional and structural fixedness.

Functional Fixedness

Functional fixedness is defined as the inability to use an object in more ways than it is traditionally intended to be used. Coined by psychologist Karl Dunker in 1920’s, he identified that a major hurdle in problem solving was due to a person identifying a fixed function in one element of a task or situation which inhibited the restructuring of the task or situation necessary to find the solution to the problem.

Karl Dunker’s famous log cabin experiment highlights functional fixedness. He had two groups of subjects and gave each group the same task. Go into a log cabin, made completely of wood. When the subjects entered the log cabin, they saw a table and on that table was a box of candles, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches. The task was to find a way to light the candle, keep it lit at shoulder height for five minutes after you’ve left the cabin, without the cabin burning down. The solution that Dunker predicted was to use the thumbtacks to attach the boxes to the door, using each as a shelf or platform for a candle. In the first group, the boxes on the table were already serving a function as containers for the thumbtacks and candles. As a result, only approximately 20% of the subjects were able to find the solution. In the second group, the boxes were unused and empty and approximately 80% of the subjects in the second group were able to find the solution. Dunker concluded from the experiment that our preconceptions of a product or service’s function clouds our focus, creating functional fixedness, and causes us difficulty in solving a problem.

One of my favorite examples of breaking free from functional fixedness is the uses of a tennis ball. Just as the name implies, a tennis ball is used to play the game of tennis. However, because tennis balls are soft and resilient, they can also be used for other functions. For example, you can place a tennis ball on the bottom of chair legs to prevent your floor from being scratched. Or you can cut a tennis ball in half and use it as a camera mount. Once you have realized that the function of a tennis ball can go beyond the game of tennis, the purpose of a tennis ball is endless.

Structural Fixedness

Just like functional fixedness, structural fixedness is a cognitive bias on a product or service. With structural fixedness we tend to think of an object as a whole, with a defined structure, that cannot be divided or rearranged. This type of fixedness makes it difficult to imagine different configurations of a product or service and the benefits that might result.

Imagine a refrigerator. The refrigerator started out as an icebox in the early 1800’s to keep dairy products cool for transport. As more and more Americans moved to cities and farther away from sources of food, the demand for refrigerators grew. With the invention of compressors in the 1910’s, which emitted a great deal of heat, the structure of the refrigerator evolved. Because heat rises, compressors were placed above the cabinet, with the cabinet space closest to the compressor staying the coldest. The result was a top-mount layout that we are all very familiar with – a refrigerator with food to needs to be kept cool on the bottom and an icebox/freezer on the top. While there have been variations of the top-mount with one door for both compartments or two doors (one for the main refrigerator and one for the freezer), the structure remained relatively unchanged for decades, although technology had improved. That all changed in the 1940’s with the invention of the side-by-side refrigerator – a refrigerator with two doors, the left that opens the freezer compartment and the right that opens the refrigerator. The inventor of the side-by-side refrigerator managed to break their structural fixedness of the standard refrigerator layout and come up with an innovative design. From there, a snowball of additional layouts has emerged such as the French door refrigerator and the bottom-mount refrigerator, all because someone realized that the standard top-mount layout wasn’t required to keep your food cool.

Breaking Free

Now that we have identified two common forms of fixedness, how do we break free from this barrier? The next step is to identify the problem and define the closed world. The closed world are the elements or components that live within your problem. While many people jump straight to the solution (or what they THINK the solution should be), this piece is vital to your success. Identify the problem through understanding the user’s pain points and develop a proper needs statement or point of view such as a “user” needs a way “to do X” so that “insight” or I see “X”, I wonder if this means “Y”. Once you have identified the problem, you then can define the closed world and the components within that closed world. You can read more details on defining the closed world and its components here.

Finally, once you have your closed world components identified, you can begin breaking components apart using problem decomposition. Problem decomposition is great because you can create sub problems and brainstorm individually for each sub problem versus having to solve for the entire issue. It also allows you to look at components of the problem independently and identify if you are viewing a particular function or service with functional and/or structural fixedness.


Everyone has cognitive biases, no matter your age, background, or upbringing. Recognizing and identifying these biases is half the battle. Now that you can identify functional and structural fixedness, you are one step closer to developing breakthrough innovative ideas.