Struggling With a Problem? Try This Simple Creativity Technique

While his young students were busy solving the puzzles and challenges he gave them, Tony McCaffrey was deconstructing another question: What is creativity and how can it be learned?

“I was an elementary school teacher for several years, and I gave my students a steady stream of puzzles and observed carefully when they were getting stuck.”

The questions from this classroom experience drove McCaffrey back to graduate school to get his Ph.D. Now a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for e-design at UMASS-Amherst, he researched 1001 inventions and innovations from history to better understand the creative process. One hurdle to novel thinking that he investigated is “functional fixedness,” the bias that limits a person to using an object only in its traditional way.

“I felt that if I could understand why people overlook certain things, then develop techniques for them to notice much more readily what they were overlooking, I might have a chance to improve creativity.”

Learning Alternate Stories

McCaffrey was searching for a way to help people change the one story they had about a common object. For example, an electric plug’s intended function is to transmit electricity, but it also has a flat metal prong that could function as a screwdriver or paint scraper. In his Obscure Features Hypothesis, published in “Psychological Science, he explains how using the “generic parts technique” (GPT) can help anyone learn to become a better problem solver. The approach is a little bit of MacGyver style ingenuity as well as Nietzsche’s broad philosophy on what a “feature” really means.

Ironically, it was the generic aspect of the technique that fostered creativity and innovative solutions. McCaffrey challenged study subjects with “insight problems” involving common objects that require no special knowledge. Half the subjects received GPT training, in which users learn how to systematically build generic “function-free” descriptions, such as material, size and shape.

New England Public Radio Interview – “Find Your Aha Moment”

Generic Parts Technique

Make a “function-free” parts list, decomposing objects and ideas into generic base elements. For each part, continually ask two questions:

  1. Can I break it down any further?
  2. Does my description imply a particular use? If so, create a more generic description.

67% Leap in Creativity

The technique was highly effective. People who learned GPT found solutions for the insight problems 67 percent more often than those who weren’t taught GPT. Having demonstrated GPT’s efficacy, McCaffrey is now developing software to that will remind people to continue to ask the two questions.

Solving Real World Problems

McCaffrey sees immediate potential for GPT to solve everyday problems in surprisingly inexpensive ways. People already do it today, out of necessity. “In this very poor section of the Philippines, people living in shanties were using electric lights inside while it was sunny outside,” he says. It seemed unnecessarily costly and ineffecient to use electricity for daytime indoor lighting. “Take a 2-liter Coke bottle, stick it through a hole in the roof, fill it with water. The water reflects the light around the inside the house.” This simple device capitalizes on an underappreciated feature of water: “It refracts light 360 degrees.”

“I want to help people to notice things consciously that they might not otherwise see, and remain open to the possibilities. Noticing is one thing, and building on it or connecting it to other things is the next step. Some of this can be learned and we now have a discipline for it.”


McCaffrey et al. Innovation Relies on the Obscure: A Key to Overcoming the Classic Problem of Functional Fixedness. Psychological Science, 2012

*Crayon Photo Courtesy of Laffy4k


Posted in Creativity, Learning Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
2 comments on “Struggling With a Problem? Try This Simple Creativity Technique
  1. John says:

    Good article. It brings to mind one of my favorite movie scenes. In Apollo 13, when carbon dioxide levels are building, a guy walks into a room with a half-dozen engineers. He upends a box of stuff onto the table and says, “We have to find a way to make this work with this using only that (gesturing to the material on the table).”

    There are a number of disassocative/reassociative approaches, but I’ve not heard this one before. Applying it to core competencies can help identify new products & services and new means of differentiation or value-add.

    I think my favorite “easy” way to get past being stuck is to smile. Smiling requires you engage both hemispheres of the brain. Besides tricking your brain into creating a little more serotonin (which provides a little more optimism you can solve the problem), it stimulates the midbrain and corpus collosum meaning the two hemispheres are cooperating more and different functional areas of the brain are engaged.

    Doesn’t always work, but its cheap and easy. Of course, sometimes you have to put up with people asking what you are smiling about.

    • Andrew Nemiccolo says:


      Glad you found the article on creativity techniques useful. You point out two elements of creativity. The first is techniques and open-mindedness. The GPT method really speaks to that. And your second point about smiling makes sense, too, because frowning probably isn’t going to increase blood and oxygen flow needed to think “outside the box.”

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