(Sept. 25) Back in the salad days of psychological experimentation — roughly the 1920s and 1930s — a young German researcher named Karl Duncker performed a series of studies on problem solving. Anyone considering a trip to New Orleans next month for Fresh Summit 2002 ought to reconsider his findings.

Duncker was among the most brilliant of the Gestalt school of psychologists. Gestalt, a German word meaning form, shape or entire figure, became a theory of psychology that suggested organization is at the core of mental activity. Much of it is unlearned, the theory said, and it reflects how the brain works.

Gestaltists offered insights into such things as pattern recognition and subjective contours. A classic example is the reversible figure-ground pattern that shows either a white vase or a pair of silhouetted faces peering at one another, depending on one’s initial perception.

On a practical level, Gestaltists offered a theoretical basis for camouflage, which no doubt saved the lives of thousands of soldiers and continues to do so even today.

But perception can refer not just to visual cues. It can explain how the mind works when confronted with a problem. And some of Duncker’s experiments teased out important findings on problem solving — findings that any business would do well to incorporate into its quality control strategies or annual reviews.

As chronicled in Morton Hunt’s “The Story of Psychology,” one of Duncker’s research methods was to bring a subject into a room with a jumbled array of objects and materials. The subject was then asked to perform a task for which none of the objects seemed suitable. The goal: to identify the conditions under which the subject would consider other possible uses of the available objects.

In one experiment, subjects were asked to mount three small candles on the door at eye level. Among the objects at hand: candles, tacks, paper clips, pieces of paper, string, pencils and, most important, three empty cardboard boxes. After a time, every subject seized on how to restructure his view of the problem and eventually tacked the boxes to the door as little platforms for the candles.

A second, nearly identical experiment produced different results, however. Subjects were provided the same objects, but the boxes were filled this time — one with candles, one with tacks, one with matches. Fewer than half of the subjects were able to figure out the problem. The reason: They perceived the boxes as having a specific purpose, “and that made it harder to see them as usable in an unboxlike way,” Hunt explains.

Duncker called this impediment to problem solving “functional fixedness.” Business gurus may not use the term, but they refer to it indirectly when they implore executives with the now-familiar phrase “to think outside the box.”

As Hunt observes, this noteworthy discovery of functional fixedness explains why people who know the most about a subject so often are the least likely to come up with a solution to a new problem in their field.

Experts come to have a kind of brain lock about the functions of their tools, while newcomers can see things more creatively. “It is no accident,” Hunt writes, “that scientists generally make their most original and important contributions early in life.”

It’s a good thing to purposefully try to shake this tendency toward functional fixedness, whatever your field. In journalism, for example, editors over the years have occasionally taken to sending out a sportswriter to cover the opera or the theater critic to cover the county commission meeting. You don’t see much of that anymore, and it’s a shame.

Produce firms have a chance to confront functional fixedness in New Orleans. Instead of sending only a few salesmen, for example, companies might try sending the packinghouse manager. Have him talk to the packaging companies and machinery manufacturers, sure, but also have him attend an educational workshop on marketing. Maybe something will strike him in a unique way, and he can report his impressions when everyone gets back to work the next week.

Companies also should have their sales staffs get out on the exposition floor and visit booths they wouldn’t ordinarily visit, given their day-to-day responsibilities. Tomato salesmen should visit some commodity boards. Citrus salesmen should visit firms marketing bagged salads. The idea is to shake things up, to see things from a different perspective.

The produce industry has its share of problems to solve. All too often, though, it seems the same problems persist from one year to the next. Maybe it’s time — beginning with the jumbled array of objects and materials at hand in New Orleans — to shirk the functional fixedness and figure out how to mount those candles on the door.