#275 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 5          May 1997

Overcoming Barriers to Creativity
by Frederick D. Buggie

Mr. Buggie is president of Strategic Innovations Inc., specializing in corporate growth and development (12 Executive Court, Lake Wylie, SC 29710;  phone 803-831-1225).  He is author of New Product Development Strategies (AMACOM, New York, 1981). www.StrategicInnovations.com

All of us are inherently creative, and many of our high-level executives realize that creativity is essential to an organization’s success.  But those same executives, as well as well-trod organizational patterns, commonly create barriers to creativity.  In many cases, those barriers aren’t even realized.  Here are some of these obstacles and some hints at how to jump over them; that is, if you really want to stimulate creativity.  First, the barriers—perhaps you’ll recognize a few.


1.  No Fun Being Wrong

You may only get one chance to make a mistake, one that you get clear blame for.  You’ve made that mistake; but now you have to be more careful.  So, you take the safest course which is to do things the “proper” way, by organizational traditions and by the book.  No sense taking chances.  No sense trying something that may go wrong.

2.  Justify Everything

Keeping the status quo is an objective of many managers.  They view anything new with suspicion.  Something new could cost money, change priorities, dilute effort, lessen responsibility—or cause any of a large number of “disasters.”  Sometimes these people will mask their fear of change by prefacing their criticism with a “Let me just play devil’s advocate,” and then they trash the idea, which will never have a chance to be evaluated.

3.  I was Right, so I Can’t be Wrong

When someone makes a great contribution, what incentive does he or she have to come up with anything new again?  Perhaps the new idea will again be a big hit.  But that’s going to leave the person in the same situation prior to this second great idea. 

The odds are, however, against any new idea being a great one.  In that case, the reputation as a creative genius becomes tarnished.  So, the best thing to do seems to rest on one’s reputation, and take no more chances.  Here you see that one big success can ruin a creative contributor.  Of course, not everyone follows this pattern; but it’s common enough to cause concern.

4.  Produce!

In many organizations, there is pressure to look as if you are always “producing.”  You have to show that your conversations are about getting the job done, that everything you do is directed to get it done, and that no time is “wasted” on other things.  On the face of it, this seems reasonable.  However, when someone is chewing over a creative idea, the person may appear to be daydreaming or involved in a “non-productive” discussion.  There may be nothing to show immediately from this creative effort; yet it is these activities that can generate breakthrough processes and products.  On the other hand, the person may, indeed, just be goofing off.  You can’t tell from the outside.

5.  Overmanagement

With assignments, schedules, deadlines and a host of distractions, it’s sometimes very difficult to find the time to be creative.  The only course is to follow procedures that have worked in the past.  No room to set aside time to consider a fresh approach.

6.  It’s Not Worth It

Some managers have a reputation of not being interested in new ideas arising from the staff.  Perhaps, these managers feel that all good ideas should come from them.  Or they are just plain uncomfortable handling anything new.  After a few experiences of being rebuffed, or even made fun of, new ideas just won’t be offered.

Overcoming Barriers

These hindrances to creativity seem overwhelming; however, they can be overcome.  You just have to be creative in how to show your creativity.  Here are some simple rules to help you become more creative:

Rule 1:  Necessity.  Realize that being creative isn’t a luxury for the organization; it’s a necessity.  Thus you should always be motivated—for the good of the organization and, consequently, for your own good—to be creative.

Rule 2:  Be positive.  Have an optimistic attitude.  Grumbling doesn’t do any good.  Believe that improvements are possible, and forge ahead in spite of the barriers.

Rule 3:  Get the data.  Find shortcuts to showing the value of your idea.  Do some research and make your case as solid as possible so that it becomes more difficult for someone to reject it out of hand.

Rule 4.  Change your perception.  Look at a problem from a variety of perspectives.  Initially, examine the problem by breaking it into separate pieces.  Then find some way to really see (perhaps for the first time) those elements of the whole.

Rule 5.  Think in sequence.  If you evaluate your ideas as they occur, then you’ll soon bog down and prevent yourself from coming up with better ideas.  So, accept all ideas at first and then sort out the good ones. 

Rule 6.  Tolerate ambiguity.  Don’t organize your thoughts or control your mind’s meanderings.  That’s the job of the left side of the brain.  Let the right side’s non-analytical thinking get a chance at the problem.  Later, you can sift through and select.

Rule 7.  Persevere.  As with any difficult job, you have to work at it.  It will be hard work.

Rule 8.  Eliminate distractions.  Uninterrupted concentration is important for generating new ideas.  Be aware that you may think you’re thinking about the problem when, in fact, you are thinking about something that interferes with your creativity.  The distraction of a phone call, a visitor—or even internal distractions like concern about getting your ideas a fair hearing—can stop your creative thinking.

Rule 9.  Don’t go after one answer.  There may be several solutions to a problem, so don’t just stop after you’ve hit the first answer.  Generate as many as you can.  The larger the pool of possible solutions, the more likely you will find the winner.

Rule 10.  Verbalize.  Words are the tools of thought.  Don’t just stare at the problem. Write down your ideas, or your route to getting those ideas.  Discuss the issue with others. 

Rule 11.  Take notes.  New ideas are ephemeral.  They’re easy to forget.  That’s why you should record them before they disappear.  Since ideas don’t have the courtesy to announce themselves in advance, be ready to trap them when they do appear.

Rule 12.  Take a breather.  After you focus on a problem, take some time off.  Rest, play, sleep or do something else.  Your subconscious will take over and automatically continue your probe-and-search operation.

Rule 13.  Iterate.  After the period of gestation, come back to the problem.  That is when your subconscious will donate its contributions.  Begin another creative climb to improve your ideas.  Repeat this concentration-relaxation sequence.

Rule 14.  Quit.  When you’ve worked hard to solve the problem—but still aren’t totally satisfied with the solution—perhaps this is the time to stop.  Take the best solution and follow it up.  Don’t use creativity as an excuse not to get involved in the difficult job of implementation.

Rule 15.  Don’t follow rules.  Loosen up.  Smash a few icons.  Do your thinking your way.  Everyone is different.

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