The Babson Summer Venture Program is a great learning environment for us entrepreneurs to shape and re-shape our thinking as we pursue our big ideas.

This week we were reminded to think like a five-year-old.

Tony McCaffrey talked about “functional fixedness,” a cognitive bias that limits our thinking. For most of us, we tend to think about an object only in its functional form. As a result, we are unable to use an 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 remove this mental block, we may see a box used as a step rather than its intended purpose as a container.

It has also been documented (German and Defeyter 2000) that “priming” an object by introducing it in the context of its intended purpose further limits our thinking. For example, when a box containing items is introduced to adults and older children, they often cannot see a use for the box other than its intended use as a container. It was noted that children five and under, however, 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 and physical (not functional) parts.

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.