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Minimizing the Einstellung Effect in Design Thinking: How to Arrive at Innovative Solutions by Diminishing Cognitive Bias

Close up view of two beakers of water in a lab

Two beakers of water in a laboratory

“What if we make an app/augmented reality/virtual reality/insert-most-recent-technology-here thing?”

How many times have you heard something like this while meeting with colleagues in a conference room, discussing a new digital initiative in your institution?

When discussing how to tackle a new challenge, it’s common to jump straight to familiar or previously used solutions, instead of considering all the angles and details of the current problem. You may hear something like, “Well, we did x for y, so let’s do x for z now.”

We become so fixated on what we already know or have done in the past that we can’t take an unbiased look at what’s in front of us and find the best solution. This is known as the Einstellung Effect, and it can seriously impede your team’s innovation capability and design thinking capacity.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a codified, repeatable process for problem-solving, creativity, and innovation. Also referred to as human-centered design, design thinking is a framework comprised of a series of steps and associated methods, and it is accompanied by core mindsets.

It helps teams solve problems by understanding human needs and motivations, discovering opportunities, generating user-centered solutions, and building and testing prototypes. It’s a process that can take place over days, weeks, or months, and involves teams of collaborators working together to solve problems that don’t necessarily have clear-cut, black-and-white answers, such as how to engage new audiences or how to build strong visitor connections to the collection.

What is the Einstellung Effect?

The Einstellung effect was documented by psychologist Abraham Luchins in 1942 with a test called the “Water Jar” problem. In the experiment, subjects were asked to transfer water between jars of differing sizes to reach specific measurements. After solving a series of problems which had the same solutions, the test subjects were given a new problem and they applied the same solution to it, even though a more efficient and simpler one existed. Instead of considering the best way to get to the desired outcome, they could not “see” beyond the procedure they had just applied. (You can read more about it here, or try replicating the test here.)

Luchins called this the Einstellung Effect because “einstellung” in German can be translated as “way of thinking,” “approach,” or “attitude,” and it captures how once our way of thinking or attitude has set in, it’s hard to overcome it.

I often encounter the Einstellung Effect in action when I’m working with organizations applying the human-centered design process to arrive at breakthrough new ideas related to audience/visitor/stakeholder engagement. Teams focus on a solution that has been used for something else, and then it seems to be the right answer to just about everything.

Falling in love with the latest solution

There are definitely situations when the most familiar or latest technologies are appropriate, but often, when ideas have taken hold of our imaginations, it’s hard to step back and consider alternatives.

I regularly see teams jump to solutions right out of the gate, before they methodically go through all the steps of the design thinking process. They fall in love with what is front-of-mind, thereby missing opportunities for fresh, new ideas.

The Einstellung Effect can be a quick and easy trap to fall into, especially when we are under pressure to quickly solve a problem. Fortunately, there are some practical steps you can take to tame the Einstellung Effect, which I describe below.

1. Start with a diverse team

By assembling a team of contributors from different backgrounds, experience levels, and expertise, you are less likely to fall prey to the cognitive traps of the Einstellung Effect. Diverse team members can challenge one another’s ideas and assumptions.

For example, a frontline staff member who has direct and regular interactions with audiences is going to have a different approach or perspective than someone whose role does not involve first-hand interactions or engagement with visitors, patrons, or audience members.

A 2011 study conducted by Daniel Frings of London South Bank University set out to study how fatigue (more on that in #2, below) impacts the Einstellung Effect. The study found that while people who are fatigued experience increased Einstellung Effect, those working in groups did not, and the quality of the solutions developed by the groups were often better than those developed by individuals.

2. Don’t try to innovate when you’re tired

The Frings study also underscores the impact that fatigue has on the Einstellung Effect. The more fatigued you are, the higher your risk of experiencing the Einstellung Effect.

Translation = don’t embark on a team working session for that big new project or initiative right after you’ve just launched another big project. And try to run design sessions in the mornings, when team members are fresher and rested.

3. Take breaks from the problem

Not only should your team be well rested before tackling a problem, you need to take breaks from it and literally walk away to clear your mind.

Where do your best ideas come to you? Do they emerge when sitting in yet another meeting? Chance are, your best ideas come to you later, when you’re walking the dog, driving, taking a shower, daydreaming — that is, when you are not focused on solving the problem.

This is called “incubation time,” and it’s been well-studied to improve problem solving and enhance creativity.

In a design thinking sprint, we don’t dive right into to solving a problem. We first build empathy for the needs of users, consciously and mindfully alternate between converging and diverging, take breaks, and play lots of games.

This is why I like to schedule design sprints over multiple days, not crammed into one day. It’s the insights that people have after they leave the room that are the most powerful.

4. Use “How Might We” statements

How might we” is a tool we use in the divergent or ideation phase of the design process. It’s a powerful way to reframe a question or problem that sparks new ideas, and can guide groups away from the most obvious solutions.

One of my favorite How Might We techniques is to explore the opposite of a problem. For example, if your first idea of a solution is to build an app, ask yourself, “How Might We create the opposite?” So in this case, the opposite of an app might be something completely analog and old-school.

5. Say “Yes, and” to the Einstellung Effect

This one comes from improvisational theater, which I’ve written a lot about before. Saying “yes, and” to the Einstellung Effect means welcoming it and embracing it.

Just knowing that the Einstellung Effect has been studied can help skeptical colleagues get on board with the need to push beyond the first or most obvious solutions. You might recognize that the first solutions that the team throws out are Einstellung-driven, say “yes, and” to those ideas, and then start building on them, expanding on them, and exploring the opposite of those ideas.

Conclusion

The Einstellung Effect happens when preexisting knowledge or experience prevents us from considering alternative possibilities to a problem. We become so fixated on one possible solution that we are cognitively unable to take a clear, unbiased approach to the current problem. Fortunately, we can take small steps to mitigate its effects, thereby giving ourselves the “cognitive space” to arrive at novel solutions to problems.


References

Lensky, T. (2015, September 23). “Do you fall prey to the Einstellung effect in problem solving?” Retrieved July 30, 2018, from https://lenski.com/einstellung-effect-in-problem-solving/

Arra, S. (2015, August 12). “Einstellung Effect: What You Already Know Can Hurt You.” Retrieved July 30, 2018 from https://www.exaptive.com/blog/einstellung-effect

Bilalić, M., and McLeod, P. (2014, March 1). “Why Your First Idea Can Blind You to a Better One.” Retrieved July 30, 2018 from  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-your-first-idea-can-blind-you-to-better-idea/

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Why play is essential to the design thinking process

Playing a warm-up game at the National Gallery of Art

Playing warm-up games at the National Gallery of Art

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct . . . ”
– Carl Jung

I recently taught an introductory design thinking workshop for a corporate team holding a two-day retreat. I drove to the retreat center, an old farmhouse surrounded by hundreds of acres north of San Francisco, and arrived after dinner, when the team was relaxing and enjoying drinks.

The VP opened the door wearing a pirate costume and hat adorned with LED lights. And I could not have been more thrilled. I knew this team was ready for design thinking.

When I entered the room where the team was hanging out, the VP casually explained that they were playing a game called “Vikings vs. pirates.” Half the room was wearing pirate hats and pirate attire, and the other half was decked out in Viking horns.

The company is not a high tech start-up, and their office is not in Silicon Valley. But, like many Silicon Valley companies, they recognize that a playful and exploratory attitude leads to move innovative, competitive, and breakthrough ideas.

As a design thinking facilitator, coach, and consultant who works primarily with museums as well as different types of companies, I am brought in to help teams approach problems differently and better understand the needs of the people they serve, whether those are museum visitors, customers, or users of digital products.

Design thinking comprises a set of methods and strategies for interviewing people, synthesizing insights, building rough and rapid prototypes, and testing and iterating on solutions. I have used it for projects ranging from reimagining the audio tour in a museum to redesigning the new employee onboarding experience for a tech start-up. The design thinking process is best learned by doing, and ideally when it’s applied to a timely, real-world challenge or project. Short games and activities are integral to this, and in my experience, the most successful design thinkers are the ones who embrace the notion of play.

When I speak of play in the context of design thinking, I am referring to short, interactive games and activities played with partners or in small groups, borrowed from improvisational theater. (Here are three posts detailing some of the games I use: Using improv games to foster creativity and collaborationUsing improv games for brainstorming and embracing failureUsing improv games to warm up for user testing and prototyping).

There is a lot of academic research on the value of play and its importance not just to childhood development, but to adult life. Play, games, and the principles that underlie them have vital roles in “building critical skills like systems thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, empathy and innovation,” according to the National Institute of Play.

Playing a game called the "one-minute gift" with Post-its
Playing a warm-up game before user testing at the National Gallery of Art, the “Two-Minute Invention

The five reasons that play is critical to the design thinking process are as follows:

1) Play enriches work

After another recent workshop, one of the participants commented in the evaluation form that there was “too much silliness.” This person added that everyone in the room was a “professional” and should be treated as such.

Fortunately, in other workshops, I hear more positive reactions, such as the self-proclaimed “IT guy who has to say ‘no’ all the time” who felt “liberated by the ‘yes, and’ stuff” or the “introvert who usually cringes at typical ‘ice breakers’” but felt that the activities were “accessible and enjoyable.”

Sadly, the notion that play is unprofessional, silly, and not befitting of qualified, hard-working adults is all too common in many organizations. We dismiss play as frivolous, irrelevant, and a waste of time. In fact, many people think that playfulness and fun are the polar opposite of work.

‘Play’ is sometimes contrasted with ‘work’ and characterised as a type of activity which is essentially unimportant, trivial and lacking in any serious purpose. . . (T)his view is mistaken. Play in all its rich variety is one of the highest achievements of the human species, alongside language, culture and technology . . .  The value of play is increasingly recognised, by researchers and within the policy arena, for adults as well as children, as the evidence mounts of its relationship with intellectual achievement and emotional well-being.
– Dr. David Whitebread, The Importance of Play2012

Instead of thinking of play as the opposite of work, let’s consider play as a way to enrich and strengthen our work.

2) Play builds team connections and trust

Many of the games and activities we incorporate into design thinking are meant to be far more than traditional “ice breakers.” They are intended to facilitate connections and build bridges between colleagues who might not normally interact together on a day-to-day basis. These connections create a platform where teams can do new and innovative work.

One of the games I have groups play, Three Things in Common in Three Minutes (which I learned from one of my favorite improv teachers, Rebecca Stockley), is a quick way to get people talking but has powerful results. I’ve seen colleagues who have worked together for years discover amazing connections, ranging from “We both have an adopted 11-year-old daughter from Guatemala” to “Our moms went to high school together in Detroit”! (Both are real examples!)

Play also builds trust among team members. In his TED talk, author and research Dr. Stuart Brown, talks about how play can help override a “differential in power” among participants. This is especially important in hierarchical and status-conscious organizations. Play can create a safe space where all ideas and input are welcome, no matter one’s job title or seniority inside an organization.

3) Play unlocks creativity and opens up new perspectives

Play helps us access places we might not normally go. For most of us, our best ideas don’t come when sitting in yet another time-sucking meeting or staring at a blank screen. They come when we are not actively trying to solve the problem at hand — tossing a ball for the dog, jamming on the guitar, taking a shower, or daydreaming.

Play allows us to tap into other parts of our brains, which provides new perspectives and enables us to see things differently. The state of play allows us to “explore the possible,” in the words of Dr. Stuart Brown.

For example, a critical aspect of the design thinking process is the notion of divergent thinking. This is the “dream big” phase of the process when we turn off our inner censors and think expansively. In order to get into this mindset, we play a game that develops what is called a “Yes, and” mindset.

An example is a “Shared Memory” game, which invites players to build on their partner’s ideas by saying “yes, and” to each other. Whenever I teach a workshop, we take 15 minutes from a two- or three-day agenda to play this game, yet almost every single participant mentions how powerful the 15-minute “yes, and” exercise was for them. I often hear from people years after a workshop that they still incorporate learnings from this activity into their current work.

Testing a prototype
Testing a playful prototype with visitors at the National Gallery of Art

 

4) Play gets us out of our heads

Play grounds us in the present moment. It helps turn off the analytical part of our brain that can cause “analysis paralysis.” Play helps get us into a state of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”

“Bringing the dynamic of play into my work helps me to respond to surprises with curiosity, and it helps me get to get into creative flow with others while getting out of my own head and ego.”
– Kendra Shimmell, Head of Service Design, Capital One

5) Play builds energy

One of the simplest reasons I incorporate play into the design thinking process is that design thinking is hard work. It’s an exhausting process that requires intensive team collaboration balanced with solo work, and it’s demanding.

Games and activities serve to wake people up, energize the group, and get the endorphins flowing.

Summing up

For organizations that truly want to think differently, develop new and breakthrough ideas, and survive in the competitive, always-connected 21st century landscape, play is critical. A playful and exploratory mindset enriches work, strengthens teams, provides new ways of seeing, and builds energy.

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Using improv games to warm up for user testing and prototyping: part 3 of 3

improv-games4
Image © 2012 Stanford d.school. That’s me in the purple sweater, right before I became the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” tournament champion of the d.school 2012 Design Thinking Bootcamp!

This is the third of three posts in which I share some of my favorite improv games to use with teams who are learning and using the design thinking process.

The first post covered improv games to kick-off a meeting or workshop, the second covered improv games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure, and this post considers improv games for warming up for user testing and prototyping.

Games to Warm-Up for User Testing

These two games help get team members into the mindset of user testing, which is about a user’s ideas and needs, not the ideas and needs of the person running the test. These games are great practice for resisting the natural urge to talk, overexplain, and apologize—something that happens even to the best of us when we hand over a rough, unfinished prototype to a user.

1) The Two-Minute Invention

This is based on a version of the game I learned from one of my favorite design thinkers, Molly Wilson. Pass out Post-it notes to everyone in the room and have them find a partner. Tell them they have one minute to make their partner an amazing invention with Post-its. The only material that can be used to make the invention is Post-its (no pen, tape, etc.). Explain to the group that after they make their invention, they will hand them to their partner without talking.

The partner receives the “invention” and respond enthusiastically, stating what he/she thinks it is and gushing about how it’s exactly what he/she needed. The maker has to refrain from “correcting” the recipient and explaining what it “really” is.

This game can be played seated around tables, or standing. I like to demo this game with a volunteer before asking people to play it. It’s fast and easy to demo, and serves as a jolt to get everyone’s attention.

2) I Got You a Gift

Have everyone stand up in a large circle. Tell everyone that there is an imaginary table in the center of the room piled high with gifts.

Pick someone to start off. He/she walks to the “table” and picks out a “gift” for the person on his or her left. The gift giver imagines the weight, texture, and shape of the gift and “endows” it with those qualities. The person receiving the gift has to “accept” the gift’s properties; that is, if someone is grunting and “carrying” something huge and heavy, the recipient has to accept the huge, heavy item.

The recipient then “opens” the gift and describes something consistent with the properties that the gift giver endowed onto the gift (heavy, light, hot, cold, etc.), followed by a hearty thank you. For example, if someone handed me a huge, heavy, imaginary box, I might open it and exclaim, “Wow, thank you, a Buddha statue for my garden! Just what I wanted!” The gift giver can’t correct the recipient and say what it “really” was.

Games to Get Energized for Prototyping

These are games I like to use when I need to get a team energized for a prototyping session. Prototyping takes a lot of stamina and energy, and these exercise help get people warmed up and in sync with each other.

1) Secret Handshake, Secret Code, Secret Dance Move

Ask everyone to stand up and start walking around the room. Yell “Stop” and tell people to turn to the person nearest them and partner up. Then give them 30 seconds to make up a secret handshake. Have them practice their secret handshake and tell them to remember it.

Then tell everyone to start walking around again, yell “Stop,” and have them find a new partner. This time they have 30 seconds make up a code word. Again, tell them to remember it.

Again, everyone walks around the room until you yell “Stop” and finds a new partner. This time they have 30 seconds to come up with a dance move.

Now have people walk around the room and mingle, and then tell them to run and find their handshake partner and do their handshake. Next have everyone find their code word partner. And lastly, have everyone find their dance move partner and do their dance move.

My favorite part about this game is that many hours or days later, people will still do their secret handshake, code word, or dance move when they see their partner.

2) Rock, Paper, Scissors Tournament

Starting in pairs, people play rock, paper, scissors. Make sure you demonstrate how you like to play (after three counts or “on three”). The winner moves on and the loser follows the winner, becoming his or her “biggest fan.” Just as with the failure bow, when someone loses, they react with enthusiasm. All the losers following their latest winner/champion, and in a couple of minutes, there should be only two people left playing against each other, with huge “crowds” of fans cheering them on.

Conclusion

The key to using any kind of game or warm-up in a meeting or workshop is to read the mood, energy, and vibe of the group, and be willing to change it up on-the-fly. If you try one of these and it’s not working, do the “failure bow” and move on.

 

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Using improv games for brainstorming and embracing failure: part 2 of 3

improv-games2
Photo by Uniondocs / Flickr


This is the second of three posts in which I’ll share some of my favorite improv games to use with teams who are learning the design thinking process.

The first post covered games to kick-off a meeting or workshop. This post covers games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure.

Games for Warming-up for Brainstorming

One of the key tenets of improvisational theater—saying “Yes, and!” to the ideas or “offers” your partner gives you —has a profound impact on the creative process. I use these games to demonstrate the power of building on the ideas of your colleagues, which is essential to the collaborative nature of design thinking. By consciously saying “Yes, and” to each other, players experience how much farther a group gets when the members support each other and build on each other’s ideas.

1) Remember Mexico (also called Shared Memory)
Ask everyone to walk around the room, then call stop and tell people to find a partner. Now ask the group to pick a location for a fictional trip. Working with a partner, everyone has to “reminisce” about the trip they took together to that fictional location by responding to everything their partner says with, “Yes, and, remember when …”

Here’s an example of how it might go:

Me: “Hey, remember that time we took that trip to Mexico?”
Partner: “Yes, and, remember how we ended up on that deserted beach?”
Me: “Yes, and, remember how we found a treasure chest buried in the sand?”
Partner: “Yes, and remember that is was full of gold coins?”
etc.

Let the pairs reminisce about their shared memory for two minutes, and then call time. Ask for volunteers to share out the last line they spoke. Often the last lines are hilarious, and no two last lines are alike.

Debrief with the group how it felt to say “Yes, and” to everything. Point out to the group that everyone started with the same fictional locale, but the groups ended up with wildly different stories.

2) Let’s plan a party

This is similar to Remember Mexico, but it can be played in larger groups (teams of three to six). Have people get into teams. Tell them they are going to plan a work party, and ask them for suggestions for the kind of party they want to plan (e.g., holiday party, exhibition opening, product launch party, etc.). Agree on what type of party they will be planning.

Tell the teams that the only rule is that every time someone throws out an idea, the others in the group should respond with “Yes, but.” After throwing out a “Yes, but,” the team member should come up with reasons the idea will never work. Let the groups go on for three minutes, shooting down each other’s ideas.

Call time and then ask the groups to repeat their party planning, but now they must respond to every idea with “Yes, and” instead of “Yes, but.” Let them go on for three minutes again.

After the second round, be sure to do a debrief and ask how the first round was different from the second round. How was the energy? What was the difference? How did the parties from round 1 compare with those from round 2? (Hint: most groups never get very far with their party planning in round 1.)

Games for Embracing Failure

1) The Failure Bow (or Circus Bow)
I use this game to establish and demonstrate that in the design thinking process, we will have a new relationship to the notion of “failure.” When we are taking risks and pushing ourselves to build new skills, we often fail. But these “failures” often take us places we never might have reached if we hadn’t spoken up, asked a question, or tried something new. And this is worthy of celebration!

The most basic way to teach the Failure Bow is to ask people to practice throwing their arms in the air and yelling “Woo hoo! I failed!” We then spend a minute walking around the room, making eye contact with each other, and booming with great enthusiasm, “Woo hoo! I failed!”

Another variation is to ask for volunteers to come up in front of the group, one at a time. The volunteer in front of the group says “I failed!” and shares a light-hearted failure, and the group gives them an over-the-top, rousing reception of cheers and woo-hoos, celebrating the “failure.”

Examples of a failure might be, “I drove to work with my coffee cup on the roof of my car today!” or “I let my kid eat ice cream for dinner!” The person on stage takes an exaggerated bow and basks in the glow of the celebration of his/her “failure.”

The point of this is to experience what it feels like to celebrate failure. The game finishes when all the volunteers willing to share their “failures” have gone.

2) Group Counting
Have everyone stand in a circle. The goal is to count as high as you can get, starting at the number one, one person at a time. Anyone in the circle can shout out the next number. The trick is that if more than one person says a number at the same time, you have to start over again.

Instead of groaning when someone “messes up” and the group has to start over, everyone yells “Woo hoo! We failed!” and happily starts over.

Next:

Games for user testing and prototyping.