Functional Fixedness

Mitch HobishGrowth, Innovation, Leadership, Productivity

What do a flock of starlings (known as a murmuration) and ferromagnetism have to do with each other? On the surface, probably nothing.

Nothing, that is, unless you are a team of scientists with a perspective and approach that goes outside what their nominal area of study seems to call for.

A team headed by William Bialek at Princeton University (but clearly international in scope) has found that statistical mechanical analysis—such as is used to understand magnetism—may successfully be applied to characterizing the way large bird flocks behave. Their work, summarized here from a 2011 publication, “…predicts the propagation of order throughout entire flocks of starlings…” in a manner that is “…mathematically equivalent to the Heisenberg model of magnetism.”

Take a look at how such a murmuration looks and behaves:

On one level, this is but another example of what I’ll call parsimony in nature, i.e., that common principles apply across seemingly disparate realms. I love finding such!

On another level, it got me thinking about a well-known psychological phenomenon, referred to as functional fixedness. This is a behavior where an individual (or group) sees, for example, a tool only in terms of what it was originally designed for. It’s kind of like insisting that a knife can only be used to cut something: Some knives make dandy emergency screwdrivers!

Questions: How do you handle a new situation or problem? Is your standard box of tools all you use? Is there some other way to attack it that is well outside of the box? How would you know what other tools might be applicable and available?