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Stereotyping Based on Past Experiences

March (1999) pointed out that a major obstacle to innovative problem solving is that individuals tend to define present problems in terms of problems they have faced in the past. Current problems are usually seen as variations on some past situation, so the alter- natives proposed to solve the current problem are ones that have proven successful in the past. Both problem definitions and proposed solutions are therefore restricted by past experience. This restriction is referred to as perceptual stereotyping (Adams, 2001); that is, certain preconceptions formed on the basis of past experience determine how an individual defines a situation.

When individuals receive an initial cue regarding the definition of a problem, all subsequent problems are frequently framed in terms of the initial cue. Of course, this is not all bad, because perceptual stereo- typing helps organize problems on the basis of a lim- ited amount of data, and the need to consciously analyze every problem encountered is eliminated. However, perceptual stereotyping prevents individuals from viewing a problem in novel ways.

The creation of microwave ovens and Post-It Notes provides examples of overcoming stereotyping based on past experiences. Scott (1974) described the first meeting of John D. Cockcroft, technical leader of the British radar system that invented magnetrons, and Percy Spencer of Raytheon:

Similarly, Spence Silver at 3M described his inven- tion in terms of breaking stereotypes based on past experience.

The key to the Post-It adhesive was doing the experiment. If I had sat down and factored it out beforehand, and thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. If I had really seriously cracked the books and gone through the literature, I would have stopped. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this. (Nayak & Ketteringham, 1986: 57)

This is not to say that one should avoid learning from past experience or that failing to learn the mis- takes of history does not doom us to repeat them. Rather, it is to say that commitment to a course of action based on past experience can sometimes inhibit viewing problems in new ways, and can even prevent us from solving some problems at all. Consider the fol- lowing problem as an example.

There are four volumes of Shakespeare on the shelf (see Figure 3). The pages of each volume are exactly two inches thick. The covers are each one- sixth of an inch thick. A bookworm started eating at page 1 of Volume 1 and ate straight through to the last page of Volume IV. What distance did the worm cover? Solving this problem is relatively simple, but it requires that you overcome a stereotyping block to get the cor- rect answer. (See Appendix 1 for the answer.)

Cockcroft liked Spencer at once. He showed him the magnetron, and the American regarded it thoughtfully. He asked ques- tions—very intelligent ones—about how it was produced, and the Britisher answered at length. Later Spencer wrote, “The technique of making these tubes, as described to us, was awkward and impractical.” Awkward and impractical! Nobody else dared draw such a judgment about a product of undoubted scien- tific brilliance, produced and displayed by the leaders of British science.

Despite his admiration for Cockcroft and the magnificent magnetron, Spencer refused to abandon his curious and inquisitive stance. Rather than adopting the position of other scientists and assum- ing that since the British invented it and were using it, they surely knew how to produce a magnetron, Spencer broke out of the stereotypes and pushed for improvements.

Ignoring Commonalities

A second manifestation of the commitment block is failure to identify similarities among seemingly dis- parate pieces of data. This is among the most com- monly identified blocks to creativity. It means that a person becomes committed to a particular point of view, to the fact that elements are different, and, con- sequently, becomes unable to make connections, iden- tify themes, or perceive commonalities.

The ability to find one definition or solution for two seemingly dissimilar problems is a characteristic of creative individuals (see Sternberg, 1999). The inabil- ity to do this can overload a problem solver by requir- ing that every problem encountered be solved individ- ually. The discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming resulted from his seeing a common theme among seemingly unrelated events. Fleming was working with some cultures of staphylococci that had accidentally become contaminated. The contamina- tion, a growth of fungi, and isolated clusters of dead




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