Friday, November 22, 2013

Functional Fixedness or How To Motivate

This is yet another article on the impacts of irrationality on Project Management. This time we'll start with a cognitive bias of ours called functional fixedness, see it in action with the candle problem and see what that means in terms of motivation. Finally, and what matters the most, how does this impact Project Management? How can you take advantage of the functional fixedness bias? Or how can you protect yourself, your team and your project from it?

What is Functional Fixedness?

Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that prevents us from seeing uses for an object other than the ones it was intended to. For instance, you can get on top of a car to reach a tree although that was not why your car was built. But the fact is that we have a natural difficulty to see other uses for a car other than getting us from this place to some other place. It is not natural and requires an extra effort from us.

The Candle Problem

The candle problem challenge consists on, given a candle, some matches and a box with thumbtacks, to find a way to fix a candle to a wall and light it without dripping wax the table directly beneath the candle.
Most people try to use the thumbtacks to attach the candle to the wall first. Then after sometime they finally empty the box, attach the box to the wall using the thumbtacks, put the candle inside the box and light it.
This is the solution to the candle problem. And the reason why people take some time before getting the solution is just because the function of a box is to store stuff inside to carry around or to store it in some closet or alike. It's our functional fixedness in action.

The Candle Problem For Dummies

The funny thing is that if the objects are given to the person being tested with the thumbtacks outside the box then people get to the solution much faster. Apparently, when the thumbtacks are inside the box, its function is reinforced...
This is the version of the problem that is called the candle problem for dummies and emphasizes the question of how things are presented. In particular, these are related to the way choices are presented, usually called choice architecture. Funny thing is that this alone (the way choices are presented) can explain why the organ donation rate is around 12% in Germany and in Austria is almost 100% - amazing, isn't it? Although some of the biases I've been discussing here can influence the end results slightly, others can pre-determine the result. Such are the cases with functional fixedness and choice architecture, amongst others.

Link To Motivation

Now we get to the interesting part: how can you improve performance on activities and tasks such as the candle problem? This is what really matters, in particular in Project Management where most problems that must be faced are not trivial problems (not necessarily facing us with our functional fixedness, but somehow the problems that Project Managers face usually don't have an obvious, immediate solution). So how can we improve performance? Well, one way is to present the problem as the candle problem for dummies - only that doesn't count because that is not the kind of problems that Project Managers usually face.
The common practice is, of course, to set a money incentive of some sort. That's what businesses have done for a long time and it seems to work. But does it really work?
Dan Ariely has explored this topic and in 2005 published the paper "Large Stakes and Big Mistakes" where he exposes in detail how motivation works when the activities are non-trivial ones. He concludes several interesting things, but in short:
  • For trivial tasks, money incentives do work
  • For non trivial tasks, money incentives do not work. In fact, for some tasks, the more the incentive is the worst the performance
Dan Pink exposes all this in this brilliant 15 minute TED presentation. Most of what he covers in this presentation is what you just read, the main difference is that he makes it all much more interesting.

What about Project Management?

What Dan Pink doesn't talk about in this presentation is about the impact on Project Management. Most problems that a Project Manager must face are not trivial problems. Most are problems that require some imagination to tackle. And some problems, just like the candle problem, can be solved only when one goes beyond hers functional fixedness bias. So, in these situations, how can you improve performance?
If you really want to start digging on the topic of motivation, you could start exploring what Wikipedia has to say about it. If not, just stick with the commonly accepted theory on motivation which is: for non trivial tasks, performance increases when the following increase:
  • Autonomy
  • Belief
  • Mastery
In short, autonomy refers to everything that makes a person feel that she is in control. Agile, for instance, takes advantage of this. Beliefs relates to the degree of confidence that a person has in her ability to perform the task at hand: does she has the knowledge to do it? Has she done it successfully recently? And mastering refers to the feeling that a person has that she's good and appreciated at something. By the way, if you ever wondered why is it that I take the time and effort to keep this blog going, it's all because of mastery.
So, after taking the money discussion off the table (because you do have to have some money to live, right?) anything that falls into these 3 big categories are motivators for non trivial tasks. Some examples:
  • Let your team members decide on everything they are able to: that we'll give them autonomy
  • A pat on the back usually works on the beliefs because it shows the confidence that others have in our skills
  • Ask your sponsor for help: doing so you're recognizing his mastery thus motivating him (this is actually something that works on other levels and because of it it can be very powerful, such as described on the previous article about The IKEA Effect)


In a telegraphic fashion, this article could go like this:
  • Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that makes it hard for us to see other possible uses for objects (other the the function they were design to take)
  • Experiments show that money is a motivator for trivial tasks and trivial tasks alone: that is to say that no one gets motivated with money for a non trivial task
  • For non trivial tasks, autonomy, belief and mastery seem to work best as motivators
  • Projects have a large proportion of tasks (and problems) that are non trivial, so in a project context go for autonomy, belief and mastery as motivators
Telegraphic or long version, both make me feel like a lot of meaningful information on motivation and its relation to functional fixedness is somehow missing. But at least you have some references here to get you started on the topic. And remember, people make projects, and motivated people perform better, so motivated people must make better projects!

Images from and

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