Tag Archives: Management

If All You Have is a Hammer…: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 13

The popular ending to the title of this post is, “… everything looks like a nail.” I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase (or some variant thereof) before, right? I bet you didn’t know that this represents an important cognitive bias, though. In fact, didn’t know that this phrase was popularized by one of the giants of psychology — Abraham Maslow. It comes from a book that he published in 1966 — The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. This sentiment behind this phrase is a concept that’s known as functional fixedness.

One of the easiest ways to explain this concept is with a different example — the candle problem. Dan Pink does an excellent job of explaining this in the opening of a TEDTalk he gave a few years ago. I’ve set the video to start just before he begins talking about the candle problem. At about the 3-minute mark, the explanation of functional fixedness ends, but he goes on to talk about an experiment with functional fixedness. Meaning, he couches the importance of functional fixedness in management theory. I’d urge you to come back and watch the remaining 15+ minutes after you’ve finished reading this post:

So, as we can see from the video, it’s hard for people to imagine the box as something other than a receptacle for the tacks. Similarly, when we’re holding the “proverbial hammer,” everything appears as if it’s a nail. One of the most important consequences of functional fixedness is how it contributes to a dearth of creativity. If you’re a manager in a company, maybe you’re not thinking about how you can position your employees to maximize their impact on realizing profits. It’s also possible that you’re not seeing a creative way to reassemble your raw materials (or resources) to design a product that will create a new market!

Ways for Avoiding Functional Fixedness

1) Practice, practice, practice

Probably the easiest and most effective way of overcoming functional fixedness is to practice. What does that mean? Well, take a box of miscellaneous things and see if you can design something fun/creative. The emphasis should be on using those things in a way that they weren’t designed. For instance, if you’re using a toolbox, you might think about how you can use something like wrenches to act as “legs” of a table or as a conductive agent for an electrical circuit.

2) Observant learning — Find examples

Another good way of overcoming functional fixedness is to look at other examples of people who have overcome functional fixedness. When I was giving a presentation on functional fixedness to a group (of college students) about a year ago, I showed the video below. About halfway through the video, one of them remarked: “So, basically, it’s how to be a college student 101.”

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series:

Thirty Leaders and Two Followers: Can We All Be Leaders?

A few weeks ago, I was preparing to teach by re-reading the chapter for which the material we’d be covering in class. Part of the class session was going to be spent on leadership. Granted, this is an undergraduate textbook in organizational behavior, I was truly disappointed to find that of the 30+ pages on leadership, there were only two — 2 — pages spent talking about followers. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a successful leader without followers.

One of the broader issues here is math. Of all the people in the world, how many of them do you think will be leaders? Of all the people in the world, how many of them do you think will be followers? I’m not saying that people shouldn’t strive to be leaders or be the best they can be, but based on our current definition/understanding of leadership, not everyone will spend a great deal of their time being a leader. In fact, most people will spend the majority of their lives being followers — and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, many of the people that we think of as great leaders were — in fact — once followers. Some say you have to be a good follower before you can be a good leader, but I’m not really going to get into leadership philosophy right now.

Instead, I wanted to draw to your attention to the amount of time we spend thinking about, talking about, and teaching leadership and the absolute void with regard to following. For instance, a quick Google search returns over 450,000,000 results for leadership, but only 420,000 for followership. You might think that’s not a fair comparison, so what about how to be a good follower or how to be a good leader? Follower returns: 54,000,000 (though I think some of these might be returning religious results). Leader returns: 1,350,000.

While leadership is more revered, it certainly seems like there’s room in the popular literature for a few great books on followers and how to be a good one.

Appreciative Inquiry and George Mason University’s Strategic Vision

This morning I was fortunate to be part of an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) event at George Mason University. If you’re not familiar with AI, from Wiki: “Appreciative Inquiry is primarily an organizational development method which focuses on increasing what an organization does well rather than on eliminating what it does badly.” The whole purpose of today’s AI was, “to help shape aspects of the new Vision related to Mason’s mission, values and the Mason Graduate (the attributes we wish all of our students have in common by the time they graduate).” Currently, George Mason University is creating a new strategic vision.

During my time as the student body president of Saginaw Valley State University, I contributed to the university’s strategic planning process. I was fortunate that during my time as the president coincided with when the university was in the process of redoing its 5-year plan. I say this because at the AI event today was George Mason University’s student government president. It made me a bit nostalgic about my time in that role.

Getting back to AI: I really like this method. By focusing on the positives of an organization, it certainly feels like there’s a better energy about the process. I could be demonstrating one of my biases, but even the faculty facilitator (who was there at the birth of this method in 1987!) spoke about the importance of steering clear of falling into a trap of opining the things that an organization lacks. Why? Simply stated: that list is never-ending.

The group of folks that I spent morning with really came up with some great ideas. This process gave me a new appreciation for some of the positives of George Mason University. In fact, I even joked with the group that it made me want to forget about moving back to Canada and get a job here at Mason.

Lastly, I wanted to say that today’s event reinforced my enjoyment of being part of strategic planning. While there wasn’t any actual “strategic planning” that happened today, I knew that the things that the larger group (of about 100 people) talked about today would be a data point that could be used by those folks who are doing the strategic planning. So, in a larger sense, today’s event was about strategic planning. And strategic planning is something that I can get really excited about.

Oh, one last thing. There was a really great line that was said during the meeting that the room seemed to love. I captured it in a tweet: