How a Coffee Cup Can Break Us Out of the Prison of Habit

My last post offered a point of view that the single greatest challenge or opportunity we face as individuals, teams or entire organizations is breaking out of our prisons of habit.  As Friedrich von Pierer, the former CEO of Siemens AG stated “we need to free ourselves from the known -- the old familiarities that required such energy, emotion and dedication when they were created but which now perversely represent the strongest obstacles to change.”

Let’s begin this conversation by examining the innocent, inconspicuous, inert coffee cup.  Although many of us use it every day we likely take it for granted and never give it a second thought. But what does a coffee cup really do?  Why does it exist?  This is not a trick question or one with a hidden subliminal message.  It’s a simple question; what is the overall purpose of a coffee cup?

If your response was to ‘hold coffee’ or ‘hold liquid’, there are three points of interest and one of great significance to discuss. First, welcome to the club where hundreds of people asked this question gave the same answer to ‘hold coffee’ or ‘hold liquid.’  Based on the collection of these responses it can be inferred with statistical significance the overall purpose of a coffee cup is indeed to ‘hold coffee/liquid.’

Secondly, a visceral response to the overall purpose of a coffee cup question is like taking a ‘screenshot’ of your brain.  The brain functions by recognizing patterns.  The coffee cup is a pattern and at some point between your birth and being asked the question your brain learned to associate the coffee cup with ‘hold coffee/liquid.’  Answer the same question of any object, process or activity and you’ll immediately understand what your brain associates with those patterns. 

The third point of interest is everyone responding to the question expresses their answer using just two words; an action verb (hold) and a measurable noun (coffee or liquid).  This is interesting because describing something using verbs and nouns is part of a larger process and set of tools associated with innovative thinking.

A verb and noun combination (i.e., hold coffee) is known as a function.  It is the most basic and elemental way to describe something.  American architect Louis Sullivan coined the term ‘form follows function’ as a principle associated with modernist architecture and industrial design. The principle is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose.  In our example the form of the coffee cup follows the function it is performing - hold coffee.

Using functions will instantly free us from our prisons of habit.  Recognize that everything satisfies a function(s).  From our products, business processes and policies to the paint on the walls, lights in the ceiling and our pet dog - they all satisfy functions.  How things are done today (i.e., our products and the way we conduct business, our dog, etc.) simply represent the ways we have chosen or elected to satisfy a function. 

Because most of us don’t think in terms of functions here’s a simple exercise in identifying them.  As you read this post look around your surroundings and pick out five objects at random.  These could be the paper you’re writing on, the pen you’re writing with, the wall switch, the chair you’re sitting in or the picture on the wall.  Write down the names of these five objects on a piece of paper.   Now ask yourself what is the overall purpose of each object; why does it exists.  Offer your top-of-mind response expressed as a verb and noun writing it next to the object's name on your paper. 

You’ve just done two things.  First you’ve successfully identified a function associated with each of the five objects.  Secondly you’ve put on x-ray glasses that allow you to look at anything and instantly see through the facade of habit to discover their underlying function(s). 

Earlier in this post I mentioned three points of interest and one of great significance regarding the function ‘hold coffee/liquid.’  We already touched on the three points; one of which was everyone giving the same answer to the question about a coffee cup’s overall purpose. What’s significant is to ‘hold coffee/liquid’ is not the overall purpose of a coffee cup; it’s simply our perception of the coffee cup.

In it’s simplicity the use of functions to strip away the facade created by our habits is one of the most powerful tools in driving innovative and transformative thinking and ideas.  In my next blog we’ll reveal  the real function of a coffee cup, continue to explore functions and their use in shift existing mindsets.

About the Author

Steven Wilt is a Program Executive in the customer success group and is responsible for delivery of innovation and transformation solutions for enterprise customers at Salesforce.