Blocks to creativity


Creative thinking and problem solving do not necessarily come naturally to people. In the case of individuals, there are blocks to creative thinking and creative problem solving. The blocks are essentially of two varieties - individual and organisational. First, we examine the need to be ready for change and the need to deal with new kinds of problem. Then we turn our attention to the various personal blocks that people may encounter when trying to solve problems, think creatively, and deal with new kinds of problems. These blocks are to do with mindset and with factors to do with perception, emotion, expression, and cultural influences. The chapter then continues by discussing how these blocks can be diagnosed and overcome. We then move on to blocks encountered in teams and then the conditions under which creativity may be encouraged in organisations.

The need to be ready for change

Executives must be ready for anything which requires having the necessary tools to combat change proactively. If we were not at times ‘blocked’ in our thinking, we would not need creative problem solving methods. In this chapter we shall first consider the nature of problem solving within the information-processing paradigm before going on to examine individual and organisational blocks to creative thinking. In addition, we shall look at ways of dealing with both kinds of blocks. It is the existence of these blocks that gives rise to the need for a structured creative problem solving process and for training to help overcome particular mindsets.

18 Blocks to creativity


Mindset is a condition where an individual is over-sensitised to some part of the information available at the expense of other parts. Mindset can be useful:

  • • It helps us to become sensitised to some important things and serves us well - for example, red lights act as warnings and alert us to impending danger
  • • As a result of learning from experience, mindset sensitises us to patterns that remind us of ways which have enabled us to solve past problems. We do not have to reinvent the wheel each time we encounter the same problem. For example, if when dealing with an irate customer we have found an approach that seems to be satisfactory from the point of view of dealing with the situation, when we subsequently encounter another irate customer, we can deal with the situation using our acquired knowledge

When mindset blocks us

Luchins (1942) showed how mindset under certain circumstances can produce fixation and stereotyping in problem solving behaviour. The phenomenon may show itself under conditions where the individual has discovered a strategy that initially functions well in solving certain tasks but later blocks the realisation of new and simpler solutions to similar problems.

Duncker (1945) investigated how past experience may block productive problem solving. He suggested the expression ‘functional fixedness’ to refer to a block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem. Interesting real-life examples of functional fixedness include the computer having been used for a long time as a calculator before its use as a general symbol manipulator was envisaged.

It would seem that, while mindset can provide us with substantial benefits, unfortunately, there are times when it can stand in the way of progress. Mindset can create difficulties for executives when they are facing new problems. When stuck on a problem, executives tend to follow their mindset, and this may be counterproductive as far as previously unencountered problems are concerned. Mindset is often characterised by one-right-answer thinking, always looking for reasons why something will not work and an over-regard for logical thinking.

Executives may have learned from past experience that a particular way of dealing with a problem usually leads to a satisfactory solution. Constant successful application of the approach reinforces the belief that this is the correct way to approach the problem, and even the only way to approach

Blocks to creativity 19 the problem. When a new problem arrives that defies solution by the learned approach, executives become stuck and do not know what to do.

Negative or ‘yes, but’ thinking arises out of executives’ zeal to cater for contingencies. It is only natural that they should try to ensure that any project will stand a good chance of being successful, and good management practice advocates that executives should consider what may go wrong and make contingency plans. Every suggestion is therefore questioned and critiqued in order to make sure that the risk of failure is minimised. However, the process of criticism itself can stifle creativity by inducing a negative mindset. Constructive criticism is required. Rather than making the comment ‘yes, but,’ one should use the phrase ‘yes, and.’ For example, faced with the suggestion of making redundancies, the normal response might be: ‘Yes, but that will only lead to unrest on the shop-floor and possible strike action.’ The better response would be: ‘Yes, and wouldn't it be useful, since we can then find other jobs for those people within the company.’

An over-regard for logical thinking can also create a barrier to creative thinking. Sometimes we have to take steps into the dark, as it were, based upon a hunch or upon intuition. We may have a feeling that what we are doing is the best course of action even though we cannot justify it in a traditionally logical way to ourselves. Perhaps the logical justification only becomes apparent post facto - we can see with hindsight that what we did was the right thing to do. Somehow, we cannot perceive beforehand the logical justification - we have a perceptual block. The notion of perceptual blocks is discussed later in the chapter.

Mindset may reflect perceptual, cultural, and emotional barriers (Arnold, 1962); intellectual and expressive blocks (Adams, 1974); mood (Shapiro et al., 2000); state of happiness (Argyle, 2001). Mood, thinking, and even personality may all be interrelated (Russ, 1999).

Let us now turn to consider the factors that underpin mindset in more detail.


Personality appears to influence how people process information. In the past there have been concerted efforts to define dimensions of personality and to develop measurement tools to relate how people are influenced in processing information according to their predisposition on these dimensions. Building on investigations into the relevance of Jung’s theory of individuals’ preferences a number of personality types have been suggested. Arguably, most personality types should be able to think creatively. However, those identified as ‘introverts,’ ‘thinking,’ or ‘judging’ types may be less comfortable with thinking creatively. Introverts need time to think and clarify their ideas while individuals who have a ’thinking' preference try to use logic and analysis during problem solving. ’Judging' types prefer structure and organisation and will want the problem solving process to demonstrate closure.

Another way of looking at how personality influences ability to think creatively is encapsulated in the ‘five-factor model’ which identifies conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extra-version as relevant personality traits (King et al., 1996). Ability to think creatively appears to be positively associated with openness to experience and negatively related to conscientiousness (. We might deduce from this that individuals who can think creatively make use of their openness to new ideas and experiences in the search for solutions. On the other hand, those deemed ‘conscientious’ often work within a restrictive set of rules that stymies their problem solving processes, thereby not allowing them to consider novel or unusual solutions.

Thinking style

Kirton (1976) suggested that people exhibit two broad creative thinking styles. These he labels ‘adaptors’ and ‘innovators.’ Adaptors like to take ideas and improve on them, preferring incremental innovation and doing things better rather than seeking to find the very best way of doing things. Innovators like to find new ideas by challenging and changing accepted ways of doing things. These different styles of thinking influence the way in which people approach a problem. In some circumstances, this would help to solve a problem but in others would prevent them from making progress towards a solution.

Learning styles

Learning styles present another perspective from which to understand how people may approach the process of creative thinking. Kolb (1981) identified four different types of preferred learning styles:

Divergers: perceive information concretely, process reflectively, are imaginative, believe in their own experience, are insight thinkers, thrive on harmony and personal involvement, seek commitment, meaning, and clarity, and have a high interest in people and culture.

Assimilators: respond to information presented in an organised, logical fashion and benefit if they are given time for reflection. Assimilators perceive abstractly, process reflectively, devise theories, seek continuity, need to know what experts think, love ideas, and are detail oriented.

Convergers: respond to having opportunities to work actively on well-defined tasks and to learn by trial and error in an environment that allows them to fail safely. They perceive abstractly, process actively, integrate theory and practice, are pragmatic, dislike fuzzy ideas, value strategic thinking, are skill oriented, like to experiment, and seek results and applications.

Accommodators: like open-ended questions and to discover things for themselves. They perceive concretely and process actively, learn by trial and error, are interested in self-discovery, are enthusiastic about new things, are adaptable and flexible, like change, are risk-takers, people are important to them.

Divergers and Accommodators are likely to be most at home with generating ideas creative, while Convergers and Assimilators may be happy reflecting on the ideas generated and trying to turn them into more practical suggestions.

Moods, emotions, beliefs, attitudes, experiences, motivations, and experience

Individual moods and emotions can impact on the ability of team members to participate constructively in the creative problem solving process. Both anger and anxiety can have a negative effect on a person’s ability to contribute effectively. It is generally considered that being in a happy state of mind is essential. Beliefs, attitudes, experience, motivation, perceptions have a strong impact on a person’s ability to be creative and to successfully participate in the creative process.

Perceptions can be strongly influenced by prior beliefs, attitudes, experience, or motivation. A person having such perceptions may be totally unaware of this and the bias it brings with it. Attitudes towards participating in the use of the techniques have to be positive. Motivation to find insights into a problem is essential, and a person’s experience will temper whatever ideas arise as a result of any ideation that takes place.

Dealing with an individual’s blocks to creativity

Jones (1987) identified four typologies of blocks. These were derived from cluster analysis of self-reported items. The typologies are:

  • 1 Strategic blocks: ‘one-right-answer approaches,’ inflexibility in thinking
  • 2 Value blocks: ‘over-generalised rigidity influenced by personal values’
  • 3 Perceptual blocks', ‘over-narrow focus of attention and interest’
  • 4 Self-image blocks', poor effectiveness through fear of failure, timidity in expressing ideas, etc.

Jones’s approach has resulted in training applications which centre on personal feedback and counselling, including suggestions for the most appropriate mechanisms for developing improved skills.

How techniques help to overcome blocks

Strategic, value, perceptual, and self-image blocks can be overcome to a great extent by use of the techniques themselves. All the techniques lend themselves to facilitating the strategic process of generating ideas. As a result of using the techniques, ideas and insights will be created where none or few existed before. The techniques act as a stimulus to thinking and help evoke, construct, and reconstruct the knowledge and information we hold as individuals in our memory. Where participants engage in group creative problem solving sessions, such as when using brainstorming or synectics, sharing experiences in the group can help build confidence, lessen the risk of making mistakes as individuals, and overcome value prejudices we may hold as individuals. In addition, it can also help compensate for the perceptual blocks and biases we may exhibit as individuals. By sharing a problem with someone else we can appreciate how others might view the same problem and how they might gain insights into the problem. These may well be perspectives that our perceptual bias causes us to overlook.

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