By Stuart G. Walesh, Ph.D., P.E.
Regardless of our job descriptions, we are responsible for driving specific outcomes – it’s what we do. When we are faced with a new technical or non-technical problem, we often engage in a productive conversation about similar problems we have faced and recount how we solved them.
We know that the process usually works – it solves the problem. That’s good news.
If that’s all we do, whether we realize it or not, we are practicing design fixation, also called reproductive thinking or the Einstellung Effect. The German word Einstellung means usual approach, mindset or attitude. We’re assuming that if this solution worked in the past for similar problems, it will work for our current problem – a reasonable assumption.
Why mess with success?
Why question what works? While we, individually and for our company, want to move forward, we could unwittingly and habitually be locking ourselves in the past. Focusing only on what has worked often causes us to miss opportunities to innovate.
Design fixation closes the door on creative problem solving because we become prisoners of the past. Economist John Maynard Keynes said it this way: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from the old ones.”
We can’t fix something if we don’t know it exists.
Benefits of seeing and avoiding design fixation
Consider some examples of how design fixation was avoided and innovation occurred. My engineering firm colleagues and I had an opportunity to design how we would use space for our branch office on the entire floor of a new building. Our initial thought, following design fixation thinking, was to apply the same logical layout we always used across our company. It always worked.
We would group people with similar functions together – engineers with engineers, planners with planners, marketers with marketers, technicians with technicians, and administrators with administrators – as shown in the upper part of the following figure.
Fortunately, we escaped design fixation by not following our initial impulse. Instead, we decided to mix everyone up. This arrangement, heterogeneous with respect to job functions, could enhance communication relative to our traditional homogeneous arrangement. Each of us would have more opportunities to learn about others and their work and, as a result, more fully appreciate our company’s diversity of expertise, function, projects and clients/owners.
It worked. For example, I, an engineer, was given an office with a technician on one side and a marketing person on the other side. As a result, I gained more appreciation for the creative and sophisticated field work done by our technicians, and I received a “short course” in marketing.
Another example is the construction of the Panama Canal, which started in 1903. The project was facing many challenges when railroad engineer John Frank Stevens took over in 1905. He did not see this effort as mainly an excavation challenge, which was common in canal projects. Instead, he considered digging to be the least important thing at the time. Stevens rejected design fixation thinking.
He concluded that while excavating was a challenge, hauling the excavated rock and earth to either coast, or to wherever fill was needed, was a much bigger challenge. Therefore, his objective was “to create a system of dirt trains that would function like a colossal conveyor belt, rolling endlessly beside steam shovels working at several levels at once. The goal was to keep an empty muck car next to the steam shovel every second of every work shift.” Although he initially received criticism for focusing on building a rail system instead of ‘digging,’ his detractors were clearly the ones suffering from design fixation thinking.
It’s unlikely you are deciding how to use a new company space or expedite construction of a canal. However, you are responsible for creating results.
Say you are seeing too many bugholes in your precast concrete product. The last time this happened, you realized the form oil application was too heavy, and once the employee responsible for applying the form oil was trained, the problem went away. Therefore, you could simply do the same thing here. Or, you could also examine the form oil applicator itself. Does it have the right nozzle? Is the air pressure correct? A solution may exist that would make form oil application much more foolproof.
Think about the tasks you frequently perform; the objects you routinely use; and the structure, facility, system, product or process you are designing. Ask yourself, “How could I eliminate, combine, or simplify and reduce costs while retaining desired functions or results?” One way to avoid design fixation is to stimulate broader and deeper thinking by using the double-diamond process.
My studies of invention case studies and tools used to encourage fresh thinking and collaboration convinced me that we will be more innovative if we use a whole-brain approach. We should strive to use our left and right hemispheres so the logical, verbal, and abstract capabilities of our left side interacts synergistically with the emotional, intuitive, and synthesizing capabilities of our right side. In doing this, we must apply our conscious minds, of which we are well aware, to more fully engage our much more cognitively active, but elusive, subconscious minds.
Whole-brain thinking, as an alternative to design fixation, is nicely encapsulated in the double-diamond process as illustrated above right.
In the first diamond, we use divergent thinking to explore possible problem definitions – more is better at this stage and almost anything may be suggested. Divergent thinking is all about generating ideas. Scientist Linus Pauling said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”
American writer John Steinbeck noted, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple, and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” After thorough divergent thinking, we use convergent thinking to select the best problem definition, and that completes the first diamond.
For some of us, giving adequate attention to the problem-definition diamond is challenging because of our impatient “let’s get it done” attitude. This may be considered admirable, but rushing through problem definition – the first diamond – may lead to solving the wrong problem, missing benefits that could arise from a different solution, failing to serve some stakeholders, spending more than necessary or harming the environment. Instead, slow down.
Armed with a solid problem definition, move into the second diamond and repeat the broad and deep divergent-convergent thinking process to fully explore a wide range of possible solutions – not just those we used in the past – then select the best option. Clearly, the two diamonds must be done in the indicated order to force discipline, stimulate broad and deep individual and group thinking, and enable us to avoid design fixation.
In precast manufacturing, early-age cracking can be a challenging problem to solve. We may rush to a possible solution by making adjustments to our aggregate gradation. Instead, we could also apply the double-diamond process by first defining the problem. Early-age cracking is often caused by premature evaporation of the surface water. Causes of that could be mix design-related or production-related and could be broken down into many possible culprits. Once the most likely cause is identified – in this case we’ll assume it’s too much air movement across the unformed surface – then many solutions can be discussed including keeping big overhead doors closed, covering products or moving products to another area. After identifying viable solutions, the best one can be determined.
If you want to move forward, minimize design fixation. This constraining force, which unwittingly and habitually locks you into what has worked in the past, can easily cause you and your company to miss opportunities.
Your company is loaded with creative ideas. Your personnel are a gold mine of innovation. Mine the gold for everyone’s benefit by moving from design fixation to whole-brain thinking. PI
Stuart G. Walesh, Ph.D., P.E., consultant, teacher and author, worked in the business, public and academic sectors before starting his sole proprietor business.
McCullough, D. 1977. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914. Simon & Schuster Paperback: New York.
Rogers, J. D. 2014. “Engineering the Panama Canal,” Civil Engineering – ASCE, Reston, VA, pp. 72-95.
Walesh, S. G. 2017. Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers. Pearson: New York.