As I was meandering around the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport recently waiting for a connecting flight back home, the latest issue of Scientific American Mind (July/August 2012) caught my eye on a newsstand with a cover story on creativity. There are a couple of articles on creativity in that issue, one of which is on a generic thinking technique which this post is about.
Thinking generically is a way of breaking out of a functional fixedness cognitive bias in which the traditional way of using something is seen as the only way to use that thing, thus limiting new, different, and possibly novel uses for an object.
For example, if someone needed a platform on their charcoal grill in order to cook corn on so the corn is higher from the hot charcoal and won’t burn, someone with a high degree of functional fixedness wouldn’t see that their metal mesh grilling basket that they use to roast vegetables and seafood in could be turned upside down and used as a platform. (Yes, this is a real example of what I needed and did last weekend, and it worked beautifully!)
The Scientific American Mind article describes the two-step technique that Tony McCaffrey developed:
- Break down the items at hand into their constituent parts, then
- Name the parts generically so that the name doesn’t imply a specific meaning or use of the parts.
One example used in the article is breaking a candle down into wax and string, the trick being that string does not convey the same use as the name wick. A wick is something you light; a string is something you use for a wider variety of things.