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The Two Greatest Barriers in Creative Thinking I Encounter

StopDuring a recent programme in Chennai, one of my participants approached me during the break. Looking distinctly uncomfortable, he blurted out, “I am not liking it. This is not working. You are not letting me progress.”

This allegation was neither new, nor unfounded. I was holding him back. From lapsing into his habits, falling into the patterns he had gotten used to after over two decades of corporate life. His comfort zone. But more on that later.

I have been running Creative Thinking and Innovation workshops now for years, and come across different people from different parts of the world who I try and help explore their Creativity Impulses and Barriers. While there are many, from Culture to Script, from Attitude to Interest, for those who are on the journey, I often see two major barriers. Which not only hold them back, but also negatively impact their group.

  1. The first one is our lack of powers of Abstraction – the inability to step away from the problem, to look around, above and beyond it, to grasp the larger context and the situations involved. Simply put, understand the so-called “bigger picture”, but by moving away.When I put participants of various programmes on these journeys of Divergent Thinking, I often see them struggle, to break free from the solution-focussed, hammer-and-tongs approach to Converge on ideas that they feel can “solve” their problems. Tonnes of diplomas and degrees earned, certificates and courses attended that demand quick solutions make this only more difficult. They miss the idea of the “essence” of the subject or the problem at hand, but focus only on the obvious, visible, and limited scope the problem offers. Abstraction allows for generation of alternatives, restructuring the problem to look beyond the known sources of data and information to look for newer, unexplored options.

    In other words, stepping away, and looking at the problem from a distance. “Psychological distance”, as Scientific American called it. In its essay (here:, SA pointed out that “According to the construal level theory (CLT) of psychological distance, anything that we do not experience as occurring now, here, and to ourselves falls into the “psychologically distant” category. It’s also possible to induce a state of “psychological distance” simply by changing the way we think about a particular problem, such as attempting to take another person’s perspective, or by thinking of the question as if it were unreal and unlikely. In this new paper, by Lile Jia and colleagues at Indiana University at Bloomington, scientists have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity.”

  2. The second, which not only hampers one’s own creativity but also severely damages creative abilities of the group is the individual’s inability to Defer Judgement.I cannot overemphasise on this – in every programme, irrespective of industry or geography, I have to literally hold people back from eagerly shooting down ideas even before they are properly articulated! It is the greatest urge, it seems, as people step in for a brainstorming session only to point out what WON’T work!

    Deferring Judgment is a vital rule for any Creative Thinking process. Ideas need time, incubation periods to form, grow and flow. There are no Eureka moments, but slow hunches that take some nurturing (yes, Steven Johnson again)! Instead, we turn brutal, either demolishing other’s ideas as soon as they are tabled, or discounting our own thoughts without letting them flow out and take shape.

    Honestly, shooting down other people’s ideas is the worst way to demonstrate one’s idea of own superiority, and only demonstrates narrowness of thinking and inflexibility of the mind. What is worse, it makes people either not want to express themselves, or exclude the Doubting Thomas in their future brainstorms!

    To defer judgment, we have to stop ourselves from evaluating any idea early and never disparage ones that come though – the only stupid idea is the one that isn’t tabled! This rule will keep the momentum going and keep the group coming up with new ideas. Nothing kills the energy in a brainstorm faster than criticism, doubting and negativity. If the process is facilitated well, there should be enough time after the brainstorm to go through all the ideas and weed out the gems. To quote Linus Pauling, “the best way to get good ideas is to generate lots of ideas. And then throw away the bad ones.”

How about considering that every idea is worthy of some respect? How about not changing the subject, but instead staying with the idea and the person? How about some patience and respect for the otehrs? It flows both ways.
This is by no means an exhaustive list – I won’t pretend that this covers all the major barriers we experience while running such sessions. But to me, these are most common, most fundamental and ingrained. And difficult to control or cull. Our man in Chennai was no exception.

But if we do manage to actively seek out the bigger picture and explore multiple contexts, as well as allow for thoughts and ideas to be generated in a conducive and productive environment, what will our world look like?

Not just in the training room?

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