How to Be Innovative: The Untapped Potential of Obscure Features

How Obscure Features Lead to Innovative Solutions


Coming up with innovative solutions is hard. Most people assume that being innovative is a fixed personality trait, so that you either have it or you don’t. However, research shows that while personality does play a role, innovation is something that can be taught, even to people who think that they have no natural aptitude for it.

In the following article, you will learn about a research-based theory which explains how the innovative process works. Then, you will see a few simple guidelines which have been shown to successfully help people learn how to become more innovative.


The Obscure Features Hypothesis

The Obscure Features Hypothesis was developed by researchers who examined the thought process behind the development of over one thousand historic inventions. This theory suggests that there is a two-step process that leads to the development of most innovative solutions:

  • First, a new or infrequently observed (i.e. obscure) feature of a problem is noticed.
  • Then, this obscure feature is used in order to solve the problem in a novel way.

A classic example of this innovation process is the following:

“…consider the two-rings problem, in which the participant has to fasten together two weighty steel rings using only a long candle, a match, and a 2-in. cube of steel… Melted wax is not strong enough to bond the rings, so the solution relies on noticing that the wick is a string, which can be used to tie the rings together. Once people notice this, they easily devise a way to extricate the wick from the wax (e.g., scrape away the wax on the edge of the cube).”

Innovation Relies on the Obscure: A Key to Overcoming the Classic Problem of Functional Fixedness

In this example, the obscure feature is the candle’s wick, which people often don’t realize can be separated from the rest of the candle, and used a string. Noticing this allows people to realize that the candle’s wick can be used in order to tie the two rings together, which allows them to successfully solve the problem at hand.


The effectiveness of teaching innovation

Beyond just describing how people innovate, the research on the Obscure Features Hypothesis also showed that teaching people to understand this relatively simple innovation process can help them improve their problem-solving skills and become more innovative.

For example, one study examined how well people were able to solve various brain teasers which require creative thinking, such as the two ring problem which we saw earlier, or the candle problem, which we will see now.

In the candle problem, individuals are presented with a candle, a box of matches, a small cardboard box full of thumbtacks, and a corkboard. They are then asked to find a way to connect the candle to the upright corkboard, in a way that allows it to burn without the wax dripping on the table below.

The solution is simple: participants need to first empty the box of thumbtacks, and then use the thumbtacks to pin the box to the corkboard. Then, they need to place the candle inside the box, where it can be lit without having wax drip on the table.

Essentially, the obstacle here is to overcome our inherent functional fixedness, which is the tendency to fixate on a typical use of an object or of its parts. As such, being able to solve the candle problem depends on a person’s ability to notice the box of thumbtacks, and realize that it can serve an additional purpose beyond just being a container that holds the thumbtacks.

When it comes to teaching people how to think in a way that can help them find innovative solutions to similar problems, the researchers found that even a brief training session has a huge impact.

Specifically, people who underwent a single 20-minutes training session, ended up solving, on average, 67% more problems than people who did not undergo such training. This demonstrates how effective this type of training can be, and shows that people can be taught how to be more innovative, even if the creative process isn’t something that they find naturally intuitive.

In the following section, you will learn the main techniques that the researchers used in order to teach people how to be more creative, and see how you can easily implement them yourself when you’re trying to find innovative solutions to your problems.


How to become more innovative

So far, we saw that one of the keys to finding innovative solutions is to identify obscure features that are related to the problem that you’re trying to solve, and to then figure out how to take advantage of that feature in order to solve the problem. In the section below, you will learn three helpful techniques that will allow you to do this easily, even if you’re not a naturally creative person.


Learn how to overcome functional fixedness

As we saw earlier, functional fixedness is the tendency to fixate on a typical use of an object or of its parts. Because this tendency can prevent you from considering creative uses for the objects at your disposal, you want to overcome this form of thinking.

An effective way to do this is by constructing a generic-parts diagram, which you create by deconstructing each object that you have into its components, and then describing each of these components in depth by listing their various properties.

For example, a candle can be described using the following diagram:


Generic parts diagram


In this generic-parts diagram, we see that there are two main components to a candle: its wick, and its wax. Furthermore, we see that the wick is essentially a type of string, which can help you realize that, beyond its original use, it can also be used to tie things together.

The main advantage of this technique it’s simple and easy to implement, even if you’re not a naturally creative person. All you have to do is deconstruct the relevant objects in a comprehensive but relatively straightforward way.

Keep in mind that when doing this, your goal is to be as thorough and as methodical as possible. Building the generic-parts diagram isn’t a highly creative process in itself, which is why almost anyone can do it successfully, regardless of whether they’re naturally creative or not. Rather, by building this diagram you’re giving yourself a powerful tool, which will help you when you need to find an innovative solution later on.


Learn how to overcome narrow verb associations

Many verbs have more than one meaning. Unfortunately, people usually focus on only a single specific meaning when describing the problem that they are trying to solve, which causes them to unnecessarily limit the range of possible solutions. By learning to overcome these narrow verb associations, you can become more successful at finding new approaches to solving any problems that you encounter.

For example, consider the two-rings problem which we discussed earlier, which is the brain teaser where people are told to find a way to fasten two rings to each other.

When people were taught to think about the various ways in which one can fasten things, they were better able to find the solution to the problem. They did this by creating a list of troponyms, which are verbs that indicate a specific way of performing a general action.

Below, you can see some of the relevant troponyms of fasten, which describe the action of fastening something in a specific way:


Verb associations list


In the context of the two-rings problem, some of these verbs, such as screw and buckle, were easily ruled out as irrelevant. However, realizing that the action of fastening could be accomplished by tying things together prompted people to notice that the candle’s wick could serve as a string that could be used to tie the two rings.

As such, learning to overcome narrow verb associations, by coming up with a list of relevant verbs that describe the process that you are trying to perform in various ways, can help you come up with more innovative solutions. As in the case of creating a generic-parts diagram in order to overcome functional fixedness, this too is a relatively straightforward process, that can easily help you improve your innovation process, regardless of whether you’re naturally creative or not.

Note that although this technique is used primarily for verbs, it can also be helpful when thinking about other aspects of your problems, by looking at the hyponyms—which are words with a more specific meaning than another word—of relevant nouns, adjectives, or adverbs.

Furthermore, you don’t have to try and come up with a list of hyponyms yourself, though it can help you contemplate the problem that you are addressing. If you want a tool that can do this for you, simply use an online thesaurus or Princeton’s WordNet project, which contain synonym and hyponym lists for different words.


Learn how to overcome assumption blindness

Assumption blindness is the tendency to develop assumptions that limit our thought process, without being aware of them. This occurs because when we think about a problem that we are trying to solve, we often end up intuitively making various assumptions regarding the problem, which are implicit in the language that we use to describe it.

For example, the researchers who developed the Obscure Features Hypothesis presented a case where they were given a previously unsolved problem: how to make a coating adhere to a non-stick Teflon surface. They claimed that one of the reasons why this problem went unsolved was that the use of the verb adhere, which was used in order to describe the problem, generally caused people to immediately look for a certain type of solution, while ignoring other viable options.

Specifically, when people heard that the goal of the project is to make the coating adhere to the non-stick surface, they tended to make the following assumptions:

  • That adhere implies that a chemical process should be used. This means that people preemptively assumed which type of energy the solution should rely on.
  • That adhere implies that two things were being adhered to each other. This means that people preemptively assumed that there should only be two materials involved in the process.
  • That adhere implies a direct contact between the things being adhered together. This means that people preemptively assumed what kind of a spatial relationship should be between the materials involved.

Because people made these implicit assumptions, they failed to come up with a solution to the seemingly impossible problem of making something adhere to a surface that is designed to prevent things from adhering to it.

Accordingly, identifying these assumptions and negating them is what allowed the researchers to find the solution to the problem in this case. Specifically, they decided to construct a three-layered sandwich, where one outer layer contained the special coating and the other outer layer contained a special magnetic surface which caused the coating to adhere to the Teflon, which was in the middle layer.

This demonstrates how being aware of your underlying assumptions can help you find new, novel solutions, by helping you think outside the box. Similarly to the process of overcoming assumption blindness and narrow verb associations, this process too is relatively straightforward, and can be performed even by someone without much natural creativity, which is why it’s such an effective tool in the innovation process.


Summary and conclusions

  • The Obscure Features Hypothesis is a theory which explains the innovation process that led to the creation of many prominent inventions. This theory suggests that new inventions are developed when someone notices an obscure feature related to a certain problem, and then uses that feature in order to successfully solve the problem in a novel way.
  • It’s possible to teach people how to become more innovative, by helping them understand how to identify relevant obscure features, using a few simple techniques. A brief 20-minute training session on the topic helped people solve 67% more problems which measure innovative ability than people who did not undergo similar training.
  • One way to improve your ability to innovate is to learn how to overcome functional fixedness, which is the tendency to fixate on a typical use of an object or of its parts. You can do this by creating a generic-parts diagram, where you deconstruct each object that you have into its components, and then describe each of these components in depth. For example, in the case of a candle, using this technique can help you realize that the wick can be used as a string, which can be used to tie things together.
  • Another way to improve your innovation skills is to learn how to overcome narrow verb associations, which is the tendency to fixate on a specific meaning of a verb. You can do this by creating a list of troponyms, which are verbs that describe a specific way of performing an action that is described by a more general verb. For example, in the case of the verb fasten, this can help you realize the numerous ways in which you can accomplish the fastening action, such as by buckling things together, tying them, or zipping them up.
  • Finally, another way to improve your ability to innovate is to learn how to overcome assumption blindness, which is the tendency to develop implicit assumptions that limit your thought process when trying to come up with a solution to a problem. You can do this by identifying any such assumptions that you might have, and negating them before you start looking for a solution to your problem. For example, when given the task of making a coating adhere to a non-stick surface, you could negate the assumption that the verb adhere implies that a chemical process should be used, or that the coating and the non-stick surface should be the only two materials involved in the process.