March 21, 2014
What You Can Learn, in the Next Five Minutes, from a Ping Pong Ball


Big thanks to Val Vadeboncoeur, Idea Champions' Director of Training, for this insightful post on an important topic.

I have a handyman friend, Paul Duffy, who is a real-life MacGyver and possesses an uncanny ability to improvise an inexpensive and elegant solution for just about any electrical, plumbing, or construction problem that exists.

For example, just last week he correctly diagnosed a stopped kitchen drain as being the fault of a cheaply-made plastic vent not operating properly. After providing him with a pin, I watched him tweak the device with the pin and his trusty pocket knife so it did what it was supposed to do. No roto-rooting, no run to the hardware store, and no plumbing-related costs.

Paul says he learned this skill from his mother back in Ireland -- a woman who could solve any household problem with whatever was at hand.

MacGyver, as you might recall, was a very popular American TV hero back in the late '80's and early '90's -- a "troubleshooter" who displayed an amazing ability, usually in life and death situations, to simulate just about any complex device with everyday materials needed within a matter of minutes.


Household cleansers could be turned into explosives or made into poisons. Engines could be fixed with flip-flops, coins, and bubble gum -- that kind of thing.

Both the real-life Mr. Duffy and the fictional Mr. MacGyver demonstrate an important innovation skill -- overcoming the human propensity to be hypnotized by current reality -- a thinking box called functional fixity -- whereby it is difficult to imagine any object operating outside of its already-known function.

Functional fixity is a kind of near-sightedness of the mind -- a psychological phenomenon that demonstrates how the more familiar we are with an object or tool, the more we see that object or tool's uses as fixed.

A hammer stays a hammer and a blender stays a blender. They never become an emergency can opener or doorstop.

In the business world, this type of psychological straightjacket shows up as an inability to imagine new uses for the products and services we've created or new applications for the tools and processes we use every day.

Unchecked, it leads to statements like "that's the way this works" or "that's the way we do things around here."

It also enthrones the "expert" or the "experienced ones" as the arbiters of what is possible and what is not possible, which, for an organization, is the road to total paralysis and it's eventual mummification.

This kind of self-hypnosis or "spell" can and must be broken if new ideas are to be generated and developed.

In the brainstorm sessions I facilitate, I break this spell by asking participants to perform a simple exercise. I give them the task of coming up with as many possible uses of a ping-pong ball as they can imagine in three minutes.

With nothing on the line, and no identification with the object at hand, it becomes easy for people to generate alternative uses -- necklaces, tiny boats, toys, packing material, mobiles, Christmas tree decorations, Kermit the Frog's eyes, etc.

Then, I ask people to come up with alternative uses for their own company's products, services, or processes.


What people notice is that it's harder to generate multiple alternative uses for something they are very familiar with. In other words, they are bound by functional fixity.

Having done the ping pong ball exercise just minutes before, however, people become much more able to expand their thinking horizons and see everyday objects in a new light.

Maybe data collected via a particular manufacturing process can be used somewhere else in the organization. Maybe a core competency in molding plastic can be used in another line of business. Maybe there are new markets for a flagship product.

Once freed from functional fixity, our creativity expands. We have more choices and more freedom to move.

My invitation to you?

For the next seven days, notice the functional fixity in yourself as you go about your daily routines. Then look for alternative uses of the objects all around you. See how many new ways you can use common household items -- elastic bands... forks... or your favorite hat.

Then consider your company's poorest-selling product or service and ask: "How else could this product or service be used? What non-obvious need might it fulfill?"

Or look at your own skills and ask: "How can I use these skills to help others in new ways?"

The answer will probably be right under your nose. You just have to un-hypnotize yourself to see it.

Excerpted from our Brainstorm Facilitation Training

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at March 21, 2014 06:46 AM

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