Think Different: Does your team need a perception intervention?

It was just like any other Tuesday afternoon and I was at a valued client’s office running a workshop for young leaders to introduce them to some new leadership strategies for their development. We are about half an hour into our 2 hour workshop, the CEO – let’s call him Calvin – hopped up and proceeded to burst out of the session. I was standing there, trying to keep a poker-face to the rest of the leaders while internally thinking “OH MY GOSH, what’s wrong?! Is he not finding the workshop valuable?!”. I am not going to lie, that definitely wasn’t a favourite moment of my career! I didn’t let these thoughts affect me or the other participants and I pushed through with the content like nothing was wrong.

The company I was running the workshop with was a 100+ year old family engineering business. They were a staple in the industry and had a large and loyal client base. As a family run business, they had been doing things a similar way for many years – but times have changed and they were ready for a new, fresh outlook. That’s where our CEO, Calvin, comes in. Calvin, is third generation CEO and since he has taken over the reins he has continued to offer the same products, but implemented some significant cultural changes to the company. The good news is the changes have all been embraced and a positive cultural shift resulting in more productive and engaged employees has been seen. Despite this, the business failed to see any improvement in other performance areas such as revenue and brand strength. “I just don’t get it, Kelly! We’ve got a great team, motivated and working hard – but we’re not seeing results in the bottom line!” Calvin said to me, puzzled. Calvin had been seeking new information on reasons why this wasn’t improving and had been grappling with this for months – racking his brain for solutions. As the pressure increased, the new pathways he was looking for simply became even more blocked. Other business decisions needed his attention and the original problem Calvin was trying to solve got even further out of his grasp. He was in a state of information overload – even though he didn’t realise this, he knew he needed help. Which brings me back to the workshop we were in right now.

After knowing the client and partnering with them for many years, I wanted to work with the CEO and his leaders on something different. Being in the engineering industry, they are heavy on logical and analytical thinking and I thought they may not embrace mindfulness strategies as enthusiastically as me! I wanted to try another strategy I show my leaders, which cuts through information overload (Infobesity) to create focus and leads to insightful thinking. The brain gets distracted so you need to use tools and strategies to focus it – one strategy for this is mindfulness (more on that here) and one of the other tools I like to use looks at ‘Functional Fixedness’.


See this picture? Did it take your brain a moment to guess it was a Kiwifruit? We're not used to seeing it this zoomed in!

I hear you asking right now, “What on earth is Functional Fixedness?”. You’re not alone… This is a common question I get asked all the time when we talk about this topic. Functional Fixedness is a psychological term for a cognitive block which stops our brains from perceiving items in different, obscure or new ways. Basically – it’s the function of our brain that allows our perception of an item to take over from what we are actually ‘seeing’.


Usually this is a very handy thing for us in everyday life, because it means our brain is able to process large amounts of information quickly based on our perception of what we already know. However, this becomes a bad thing when you look at it from a problem-solving perspective… it means that your brain is actively preventing you from perceiving the problem in a different way, it is just looking at it how it has always looked at it – unable to see it as anything else. In the same way as mindfulness creates focus, clarity to lead to insightful thinking, using techniques to overcome Functional Fixedness allow creativity to break through analytical and logical thought processes and open up space for insightful thinking. So, I knew this would be perfect for my group of engineering leaders.

At the start of the workshop, I wanted to get the group ready and start them thinking differently. I was working through Left Field’s A-ha game activity – it is designed to prime the brain for creative problem solving by using techniques to overcome functional fixedness. As I anticipated, the leaders showed negativity and reluctance toward the activity to begin with as they did not want to challenge their thinking. The brain is a funny thing, when people are busy and tired, the brain prefers the comfort of the status quo and will resort to the easy option (more on the science behind that here). Status quo thinking for our CEO and group of engineering leaders is logical and analytical and this activity allowed them to shift focus away from their existing environment and rediscover their creativity. Continuing to work through the activity with the group of leaders (after the CEO’s unexplained departure), resulted in innovation at its finest. They were able to come up with a new device design for one of their products which not only overcame safety issues that kept coming up, but also brought about an overall more user-friendly and effective product. All from just applying insightful thinking strategies!

It was at this point in the workshop, we stopped for a break and Calvin walked back in the room (thankfully with a smile on his face) and came up to me visibly excited. “Sorry I ran out before Kelly… I just couldn’t wait!”. He then proceeded to tell me how during our activity, he had this A-ha moment on one of the problems he had been struggling with for months. Calvin realised that although the company had changed internal cultural, their customer base, externally, still saw them in the traditional way. One of the problems Calvin was facing was working with the marketing team to present something to change the customer’s view of the company. Turns out that the reason he ran out was to go straight to the Head of Marketing and share his idea. “I was working through the activity and I understood how to break the problem down to the simplest solution… I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before!”  Calvin animatedly explained to me. Needless to say, I was both excited and relieved that not only did Calvin find my workshop valuable, it gave him the insightful thinking he needed to overcome his information overload mental block!

This further reinforces the importance of the ability to think differently in order to continue to improve (not stagnate) to be able to be a successful leader in a 21st century workplace. My eBook on Tackling Infobesity – How Leaders Can Think Clearly Again deals with this in more depth.

My greatest advice is to do what Calvin did and arm yourself with all the tools, techniques and strategies you can to continue developing yourself not only as a leader, but as a person!