Avoid Being Stung by the Einstellung Effect

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?
- Stu Walesh, S.G. Walesh Consulting

Left and right hemispheres of the brain

Avoid Being Stung by the Einstellung Effect

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.

 Einstellung Effect

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.”

Why mess with success?

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:

  1. Observation: “…Facts are collected and observations are made on the system.” 
  2. Recollection: “…Past experience is reviewed and solutions to similar problems in the past are identified.”
  3. Reasoning: “… Pros and cons of the possible decisions are identified and the implication of each alternative stated.” 
  4. Decision: “…The best alternative is selected.”

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?

What can we do?

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.

Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers, 1st edition

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:

  • Borrowing Brilliance
  • Mind Mapping
  • Fishbone Diagramming
  • Biomimicry
  • Six Thinking Caps
  • TRIZ
  • What If

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.

Associated Content

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Thinking Creatively to Drive Innovation (e-Learning Module)

Encourages students to stimulate and use their natural curiosity regarding the changing world about them and its needs. Then, based on what they see and understand, seek to make connections from many sources to generate creative ideas that lead to meeting those needs.
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Citations & Bibliography

  1. Brooks, D. 2011. “Tools for Thinking,” The New York Times, April 1. 
  2. Genco, N., K. Holtta-Otto, and C. C. Seepersad. 2012. “An Experimental Investigation of the Innovative Capabilities of Undergraduate Engineering Students" [PDF], Journal of Engineering Education – ASEE, January, pp. 60-81. 
  3. McCuen, R. H. 2012. “Creativity: An Important Problem-Solving Tool for Water Resources in 2050,” Chapter 33, in Toward a Sustainable Water Future: Visions for 2050, American Society of Civil Engineers, Reston, Va. 
  4. Walesh, S. G. 2016. Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers, Pearson, Hoboken, N.J.

Additional reading:

Meet the Author

Stu Walesh

Stu Walesh, Training Services

Stu Walesh, PhD, PE is an independent consultant, teacher, and author providing management, leadership, and education/training services. Prior to beginning his consultancy, he worked in the public, private, and academic sectors. For over 15 years, he has been active in reforming the education and early experience of engineers. He authored the 2012 Wiley textbook "Engineering Your Future: The Professional Practice of Engineering," and his textbook, “Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers,” was published in January 2016 by Pearson Education.

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