A Slice of the Knife


Several weeks ago I was chopping veggies for a salad. Now right here, it’s important to know that I’m a much better “chopper” in my imagination than in my kitchen. And so, as I sliced, my action got ahead of my skill. You might say, a kind of culinary cockiness took over and I sliced more than the veggies. A fairly deep cut opened on my thumb and blood soon followed. I grabbed a paper towel and headed to the bathroom to find a Band-Aid.


The Band-Aids were nowhere to be found. My wife had done a really silly thing. She put the Band-Aids where we always keep them. How unhelpful is that?  Because I don’t always pay attention to these finer details, I was out of luck. As the blood made its way through the paper towel, I headed back into the kitchen with a new mission in mind: make a band-aid out of anything available. Within 2 minutes, the make-shift band-aid—a small strip from an envelope and clear packing tape, was on my finger. A minute later, I was back to chopping veggies in a humbled and more realistic manner.


My make-shift band-aid reminded me that creative-solution making begins with how we see what we have. When we see ways to ingeniously arrange (or rearrange) available resources, we initiate important change. The opposite can also be true. If we are unable to see how available resources can be used in new ways, we will significantly reduce the number of inventive solutions. When this happens we determine our solution requires a resource we lack and progress wanes. Research psychologists identified this limited view of resources as a cognitive bias. They named this cognitive bias, functional fixedness. This simply means a person is not able to conceptualize a resource outside its “primary” use.  She is fixed on its function and therefore limited in how she can use it.


Take my run-in with a sharp knife. The night I sliced more than veggies, and in order to stop the bleeding, I had to overcome functional fixedness. If I had insisted on a fixed view of envelopes and tape, I would have bled quite a bit longer, as I hunted for a REAL Band-Aid. Because I let go of the “correct” usage of envelopes and tape, I was able to SEE those resources in new ways. The envelope and tape became more basic resources I could make into whatever I needed, including a band-aid.


How To Overcome Functional Fixedness: An Example From The Cuban People


Because of political divides and unrest, you may, or may not, know much about Cuban history. I confess, I don’t. It’s been easy for me to depersonalize Cubans, seeing them as trapped in a corrupt system, rather than as inventive people who, like me, are trying to live a meaningful life. Recently, my eyes were opened to the ingenuity of the Cuban people through a short video about their ingenuity.


The video highlights the work of Ernesto Oroza. Oroza is a Cuban designer and artist that became intrigued by the resourcefulness of the Cuban people, particularly during times of heavy sanctions.   In the short video (here’s the link to the video), Oroza reveals how the Cuban people overcame functional fixedness. The video shows how Cubans created critical machines and services with very limited and familiar resources.



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Oroza names this Cuban resourcefulness, technological disobedience. The simple definition of technological disobedience is the ability to UNsee an object and then REsee (in new ways) the parts that made up the original object. For example, instead of seeing an oscillating fan, Cubans learned to UNsee the fan and instead SEE the raw materials (plastic, steel, switches, motors, and so forth) that could create any number of items for daily living. The fan was no longer a fan, but a collection of parts that could be manipulated in new ways. In doing this, they were able to create new things out of familiar things. What a brilliant skill to possess.


If we want to be ingenious with our resources, we too need to develop a kind of resource disobedience. We need to UNsee what is and REsee what could be.


UNsee— To UNsee we must drop our fixed view of something or someone. Don’t see the object or person as a fixed “part of” something that is already defined determined. Let the object stand alone as something usable for other ends. Let the person out of the narrow confines of your current view.


REsee— Once you’ve let go of your fixed view of something or someone, then look with fresh eyes at possibilities. How could an object be used in new ways, different than the familiar one? How could a person play a different or enhanced role, rather than the one you’ve assigned them?


Let’s give this two-step process a try:


  • Think about a current challenge or opportunity you face.


  • Now consider some of the familiar resources and people that are part of that challenge or opportunity.


  • Focus now on one of those resources or people. UNsee the object, service or person. Break down your assumptions and fixed ideas about that resource or person. Don’t see the label you’ve assigned to that object or person. Try and remove the object or person from the familiar context and see them anew.


  • Ask yourself, how might an object or service be used in a new way. Forget how you’ve used it in the past.


  • Ask yourself, how might a person be unleashed in a new way to help solve a difficult challenge? Get out of the fixed view you have of that person.


  • Now experiment with the object or the person. Of course, experimenting with a person requires he or she is not viewed as an object but rather a willing participant in the ingenuity. Invite them. Inspire them to UNsee and REsee their own potential and purpose.


  • Experiment Experiment Experiment.


  • Fail. Fail Fail.


  • Learn Adapt Learn Adapt.


  • Succeed. Rinse and Repeat.


The collective ingenuity we seek is often hiding in the people and resources already nearby.  Seeing familiar things and people in new ways is an essential step in turning what we have into what we need. If you’re interested in exploring this idea more, I discuss these concepts further in my book, Tribal Alchemy: Mining Your Team’s Collective Ingenuity.