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Think like a five-year-old

Posted by Devin Cole  July 18, 2012 10:17 AM

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As entrepreneurs, we often shape and re-shape our thinking as we pursue our big ideas. Each day brings new challenges that we tackle with passion, can-do attitudes, and resourceful problem solving.

But it's worth remember that, in problem solving, sometimes we need to think like a five-year-old.

Tony McCaffrey explains that, when problem solving, most of us are hampered by functional fixedness, a cognitive bias that limits our thinking. For many, we tend to think about an object only in its functional, single-purpose form. As a result, we are unable to use this object in a new way that may be required to solve a problem. According to Tony, a group that was taught to remove this mental block was able to solve twice as many problems compared to a control group. For example, when we’re able to overcome functional fixedness, we may see a wooden box used as a step rather than its intended purpose as a container. Most objects have features that can be leveraged in other ways. In this case, the box used as a step may just turn out to be the viable answer to a problem.

It has also been documented (German and Defeyter 2000) that “priming” an object by initially introducing the object in the context of its intended purpose further limits our thinking. For example, when the wooden box is initially shown with items contained, adults and older children have more difficulty seeing the box used in ways other than its intended use as a container. Interestingly, it was noted that five year old children were not limited by functional fixedness, regardless of whether the object was primed or not.

Five-year-olds were able to solve problems by applying the box, in this case, to any goal intended.

As entrepreneurs, the ability to “think outside the box” is critical. To achieve this, Tony reminds us to break down objects into its descriptive (not functional) parts. He calls it the “generic parts technique.” The end result often looks like a hierarchy diagram. It helps to do this on a large whiteboard. As we break down each object into its parts, be mindful of two things. First, if a subpart can be further broken down, then do it. Second, if your subpart label implies a use, then describe it more generically. This technique systematically strips away our preconceived uses of the object and its parts. As a result, alternative uses may emerge to help solve the problem at hand.

Now how would you solve this problem?

On a wooden table that is positioned in the corner of the room, there is a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches. How do you attach the candle to the wall so that, when lit, it does not drip directly onto the table below it?

Think like a five-year-old. Or go find a five-year-old child.

Cliff is the co-founder of SidewalkAd, a smartphone marketing solution that connects local businesses and consumers to create a stronger local economy. Learn more at

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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