#17 from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 5          December 1992

Blocks and Barriers:  Are They Squelching Your Creativity?
by Gary A. Davis, Ph.D.

Dr. Davis, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is author of Creativity Is Forever (3rd ed. 1992), Kendall/Hunt Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa.

If it weren't for certain blocks to creative thinking, I think most of us would be far more creative.  Some of these blocks are found within ourselves, others are external.  Entrenched habits, insecurities and a repressive environment can prevent us from making full use of our inborn creative abilities.  The best countermeasure to "blocks and barriers" is recognizing these creativity-squelching forces, and mustering the independence and confidence to be ourselves and express our creative ideas and solutions in spite of them.

Let's look at some common sources of creativity squelching, and countermeasures to them.


The first and most obvious barrier is habit--our acquired patterns.  Once learned, these habits are tough to break, but that is just what we must do to see clearly and create new possibilities.

Recognize these habit-related squelchers? 

"We've never done it before."
"We did all right without it."
"It's been done that way for 20 years, so it must be good."

The ability to form habits and expectations is necessary for survival, but when it comes to creativity, habit can be a curse.

When tackling a problem, take a few seconds to ask yourself, "Am I responding out of habit?  Can I find a better, more innovative solution?"  

Perceptual Blocks

Perceptual blocks also originate in learning and habit.  Our accustomed way of perceiving things interferes with the ability to see new meaning, relationships, methods or applications.  Psychologists use the terms "functional fixity" or "mental set" to describe this predisposition to perceive things in certain ways.  For example, based on symptoms that seem familiar, a physician, scientist or executive may persistently misclassify  a problem and treat it incorrectly.

Have you heard these examples? 

"It's too early (or late)."
"We're too small (or big or new) for that"
"No one uses this method for our type of project."

Once you get over a perceptual barrier and come up with a creative solution, you may kick yourself for not having seen it earlier. 

Consider these puzzles:

1.  The police entered a gym containing five wrestlers just as the dying man looked at the ceiling and mumbled, "He did it."  They immediately arrested one of the wrestlers.  How did they know who was guilty? 

2.  Remove six letters from ASIPXPLETLTERES.  What word is left? (Answers at end.)

Perceptual blocks are difficult to overcome, but it helps to stay flexible, keep an open mind and continually try to see a problem from different angles.

Rules and Traditions

From the family to the laboratory to the international corporation, all social groups must have rules, regulations, policies and traditions to guide personal and group behavior.  Unfortunately, too often "guide" actually means "restrict" or "inhibit."

One tradition-based barrier stems from the status hierarchy.  Lower-status people are reluctant to suggest ideas to people in higher positions, due to insecurity and fear of evaluation.  Likewise, higher-level people frequently resist ideas that threaten the hierarchy ("Hey, let's make everybody a vice-president!").

A second tradition-based obstacle is the formalization barrier--the degree to which rules and procedures are enforced.  If group members must comply strictly with procedures, creativity will suffer.

Procedural barriers are policies and regulations--written or unwritten--that inhibit innovation.  For example, are research administrators promoted for their analytical skills, or their ability to foster a creative atmosphere?  Does planning tend to be short-term or farsighted?  Do decision-makers avoid expenditures that don't produce an immediate payback?  Do they micro-manage the development of an innovation?

Consider these squelchers: 

"We can't do it under the regulations."
"That's not our job (role, responsibility or department)."
"It's not in the plan."
"Let's form a committee!"

If a rule, policy or procedure restricts innovation, I'd suggest becoming a revolutionary.  Challenge the rule.  Roger von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head, recommends holding "rule-inspecting" and "rule-discarding" sessions in your organization.

Cultural Blocks

Cultural blocks can be summarized in two words:  conformity pressures.  It simply is uncomfortable to be different, to challenge accepted ways of thinking and behaving.  We learn that it's good to be correct, logical and practical; to follow rules and avoid mistakes; and that "play is for kids."  Creativity requires violating all of these norms.

Some typical squelchers: 

"Don't play around."
"Don't rock the boat."
"Don't step on any toes."
"It will offend."

Creative thinkers, by definition, are not strong conformers in their problem solving.

Emotional Blocks

Familiar emotions that can "freeze" our thinking include anger, fear, anxiety, hate and even love.  Some are temporary states, possibly caused by problems with co-workers, bosses, financial strains or difficulties with spouses or children.  Other emotional blocks are chronic states of insecurity, anxiety and fear of failure and criticism.

A squelcher related to emotions: 

"No newcomer is going to tell me how to run this laboratory! 

If you are upset, come back to the problem when you can concentrate.  Remember that innovative thinking requires risk-taking and making waves; you must be sufficiently confident to risk criticism and even failure.

Resource Barriers

Resource barriers, including a shortage of people, money, time, supplies or information, seem an unnecessary block to creativity.  Innovation requires such resources to a greater extent than routine organizational procedures.  If you are hearing, "It's not in the budget" or "We need more lead time," perhaps minor revisions to budgets, scheduling or priorities would permit more effective work on innovative projects.

Many of these blocks are subtle but effective squelchers of imagination and innovation.  Again, the best defense is to be aware of these forces and not let them flatten your innovative thinking.  To help yourself see past the barriers, cultivate an attitude of "creative discontent"--a belief that anything can be improved. 

One final thought about self-squelching:  If you believe you are not creative, you will be right.  

Answers to puzzles:

1.  The other four wrestlers were women.

2.  Try removing S-I-X L-E-T-T-E-R-S.

2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.