Imagine that you are standing in a room with three light switches that control three light bulbs in another room. Each switch controls one light, and every switch and bulb work correctly. The bulbs and their light are not visible from the room with the switches. You must determine which switch controls which light bulb but you may only enter that room once. No one else can assist you and there is no special equipment except for your creativity. To solve the problem, think differently.

Solving creative problems requires seeing old things in new ways.

If you’re looking for a visual solution, you’re probably on the wrong path. Read onward because you will discover the solution and a way to attack other unconventional challenges.

Psychologists state that our brains create associations between items and their common functions. These associations are evolution’s way of reducing the effort and time needed to solve problems. For instance, thousands of years ago your ancestors saw a clutch of mushrooms and immediately realized they were dangerous. They knew tall grass hid predators and pale moons indicated rain.These associations kept them alive but now they hinder our creativity. 

Functional fixedness occurs when we only associate objects only with their conventional uses. Keys open doors but not beer bottles and scotch tape covers paper but not minor wounds. It stymies entrepreneurs from finding unconventional and creative solutions. It is the proverbial box we think inside of.

Life-long creative people seem to avoid functional fixedness innately but it’s just a practiced approach that the rest of us never learned. They know how to think outside-of-the-box because they repeated the process until it became their norm. The rest of us benefit from a plan until the approach becomes engrained. Try the following three steps to see if they work for you.

1. Take an inventory of the environment

When you need a creative solution like the creativity puzzle, two things probably occurred. The term “light bulbs” caused you to only consider a visual solution and to dismiss possible alternatives. Overcoming functional fixedness can be accomplished by consciously evaluating every alternative. Inventory the available assets in the environment to ensure that nothing is overlooked.

There are 3 switches, 3 lightbulbs, a door, 2 rooms, and according to the picture, a common wall. It wasn’t stated but there’s probably a ceiling and a floor as well.

The inventory may seem excessive but it’s necessary. More detailed inventories typically produce more solutions.

2. Disassemble the inventory

This step breaks the association. A key becomes a 2-inch flat piece of metal with grooves and a hole. Keys open locks but metal can bend, poke, scratch, pry, and perform all sorts of functions. If you were asked to open a bottle with the items in your possession, you might overlook a key. However, if you thought of it as a piece of metal, it might be easier to visualize the solution.

The lightbulbs comprise metal filaments, wires, bases, and a glass bulb. Switches are binary and contain 3 or 4 wires: line, load, neutral, and ground. The wires are metal and covered in plastic. There is also a plastic cover on the switches and presumably, the bulbs are in one or more fixtures. There are walls, presumably a floor, ceiling, and a door. Specifics weren’t given but doors typically have doorknobs and most rooms are drywalled. 

3. List the capabilities and traits of all of the items

The switches and lightbulbs are binary: they are on or off. They don’t dim, flicker, or blink. Electricians might, however, know how to cause one to flicker or force the light bulb to burn out. One might disable a switch, make the other flicker, and turn the last one. Let’s assume you don’t need to be an experienced electrician to solve the problem though. Keep going.

The walls and doors aren’t part of the solution but for a moment imagine they are. Drywall can be destroyed by a toddler. A punch through the common wall may show the bulbs in the other room. The door might have a shiny doorknob that could be positioned to reflect the bulbs. Since neither of these items was described, let’s assume they’re not part of the solution. Besides, punching a wall might reward you with a trip to the hospital.

Glass bulbs break. Filaments and wires carry electricity. Filaments illuminate and turn red. They conduct heat. Switches can be disabled and WAIT A MINUTE. Lightbulbs get hot! A red filament is a searing one. When electricity passes through it heats the bulb. 

Now, the light bulbs are no longer binary. In addition to being on or off, they’re hot or cold. Turn on Switch 1 for a few minutes until the bulb gets hot. Turn it off and immediately turn on Switch 2 then enter the other room. Switch 2 controls the lightbulb that is on. Switch 1 controls the bulb that is off but hot and Switch 3 controls the bulb that is off and cool.

Fixing Fixedness

Conventional thinking is like any undesirable habit. Fixing it is a learnable process that decouples familiar mental associations. When faced with a challenge that requires a creative solution, take an inventory of the environment, deconstruct it, and list every capability and trait the components offer. These steps break associations and allow you to identify the unconventional opportunities hidden within. For those of us who haven’t lived our entire lives outside of the proverbial box, creating your niche might be three simple steps away.