by Stu Walesh, February 1, 2016. This article also appears in ASCE News.
Each faculty member and student’s mindset – his or her attitudes, dispositions, and motivations – is like a multifaceted gemstone. One facet of that potentially powerful and sometimes creative gem is the ability to recognize and avoid the Einstellung Effect trap.
The Einstellung Effect, where the German word means approach or way of doing something, refers to trying to resolve an issue, problem, or opportunity only by using approaches that have worked in similar situations, rather than looking at each new situation on its own terms.1 This narrow, habitual left-brain dominated tendency inhibits creativity.
Another term for this creativity-innovation barrier is design fixation which may be defined as an “unintentional adherence to a set of ideas or concepts limiting the output of the conceptual design.”2 The ominous word is “unintentional” because it reminds us that we may unknowingly or habitually rule out a fresh perspective.
Although we may welcome a new challenge and commit to resolving it, we are unwittingly locked into past solutions. Call it what you want – Einstellung Effect or design fixation – this predisposition to familiarity may prevent consideration of much better and more creative approaches.
As noted by change thinker John C. Maxwell, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from the old ones.”
Engineering professor and author Richard McCuen3 explains what we are referring to here as the Einstellung Effect or design fixation by putting it in the context of the following typical four-step engineering process:
This traditional, time-proven engineering approach is sound. It has resulted in untold numbers of successful engineered systems, facilities, structures, products, and processes.
So why the concern – why question it – why “mess” with success? I am most concerned with Step 2, that is, only focusing on similar past problems and, more importantly, their solutions. Shouldn’t we try to do more than rehash old solutions — as successful as they may have been? Might we find great value in at least exploring, in parallel to the tried and true, some fundamentally new approaches?
Assume we want to avoid the Einstellung Effect because it typically causes us to miss out on personal and organization benefits often associated with creative approaches to resolving technical and nontechnical challenges. We don’t want to thoughtlessly get stung by Einstellung.
Then, the next time we come to Step 2, let’s encourage ourselves and others to take a time out from the usual approach. Instead, first thoroughly define the challenge and then seek, perhaps in parallel with what has worked in the past, a creative resolution. Apply collaborative, whole-brain tools4 such as:
Or use whatever might work for you such as traditional brainstorming. The risk is low (we can always resolve the challenge the way we always did) and the potential payoff is high – including the satisfaction of doing what has never been done.
Perhaps the advice in the previous paragraph sounds easy, obvious. It is easy to understand but not easy to do because most of us are tempted to take the easy path. Let’s not thoughtlessly go down that road.
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