Why functional fixedness affects product managers?

When developing the first graphical user interface operating system, Steve Jobs found that Apple’s internal technical engineers only understood graphics as making a few icons. He realized that if they continued this way, the project would fail. So, he decided to start over and build a new team. He required the new hires to have both engineering skills and an artistic touch. Finally, this new team successfully developed the new Macintosh computer using a graphical user interface.

Behind this milestone event in the PC industry is a common psychological phenomenon: functional fixedness. What is functional fixedness? Simply put, it means that our thinking is fixed on a certain function or purpose, making it difficult to see broader possibilities and solutions, thus limiting our innovation and problem-solving abilities.

Why does functional fixedness occur? On the one hand, people tend to accept what is known rather than looking for unknown possibilities. On the other hand, our brain processes information by quickly categorizing and generalizing, which makes it easy for us to put things into a predetermined category and difficult to break out of that framework to explore more possibilities. For example, scientists viewed eyebrows only as having the function of preventing rain from falling into our eyes, while a 14-year-old boy discovered that human eyebrows are a protective mechanism formed during evolution.(Story Link) The reason for the scientists’ error was that eyelashes are right next to the eyebrows, and they unconsciously “transplanted” the function of eyelashes to eyebrows, resulting in a cognitive bias caused by functional fixedness.

This situation is particularly common in the work of product managers, especially when we have long-term work experience in a certain field. We often form some fixed ways of thinking about the field and believe that certain situations should be handled in a certain way. However, in reality, the external environment is constantly changing, and the solutions should also change accordingly.

Steve Jobs also made the same mistake. In the mobile phone market, Apple has always been the market leader, but they once made a fatal mistake: insisting on using small screens for a long time. This caused them to lose to competitors such as Samsung in the large-screen phone market. In fact, when Apple introduced larger screens, they regained market share.

This situation also greatly affects startup companies. Because startups often need to stand out in a fiercely competitive market, they need to constantly innovate and improve to attract the attention of users and investors. If product managers are stuck in functional fixedness, they will be unable to meet customer needs and market changes, ultimately losing their competitive advantage.

In summary, functional fixedness often hinders the success of product managers. To avoid functional fixedness, we need to frequently check our implicit assumptions, and even invite professionals from completely unrelated industries to provide advice and consultation, so that we can break through fixed ways of thinking and avoid functional fixedness issues.

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