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The 3 most common barriers to creative thinking

Man with hand in front of camera and the words creativity stores here on his hand

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Why read this? : Creativity helps you come up with new ideas. But you have to deal with certain types of people who put up barriers to creative thinking. We share examples of the 3 most common creativity blockers. Read this to learn how to deal with these barriers to creative thinking. 

We believe everyone can be creative. But being creative in a business context can be hard.

That’s usually down to the culture of the business. Culture’s how things get done, and it impacts key areas like people and processes.

Set the culture up to encourage people to be creative and you get lots of breakthrough ideas. (See for example our summary of Creativity Inc, which shows how Pixar do it). 

But most business don’t set up their culture to allow people to be creative. 

Diagram with culture written in the centre and eight spokes - people, organisation, values, reward, leadership, environment, standards and policies, systems and resources

They set it up to drive efficiency. To control and keep things on track. That discourages breakthrough ideas and attracts the type of person who puts up barriers to creative thinking.

3 types of people who create barriers to creative thinking

The people who create barriers to creative thinking usually have some sort of power in the business. If they didn’t, people would just ignore their challenges and be creative anyway. 

They’re usually senior leaders, or they run a function which controls a factor (budgets, approvals etc) which influences how creative a business can be. They often don’t intend to put up these barriers to creative thinking, but they inadvertently create them by what they say and what they do. 

To bring each type to life, we’ve created little character portraits of them. They’re an amalgamation of different people we know who are like this. Though we’ve made them all men here, it’s usually their leadership position not their gender which drives the behaviour. (in fact we’ve also added alternate names for them if you’d rather picture them as female leaders). 

Controlling Chris (Christine)

First off, meet Chris.

He’s usually the big boss. Managing Director. Chief Executive Officer. Chairman. Something fancy sounding like that.

He’s ultimately accountable for everything the business does.

But he’s got a lot of power to back up that accountability. People have to listen to what he says. To do what he tells them. He answers only to the owners and the shareholders. 

Man in a suit sitting at a desk holding a phone and angrily shouting into the mouthpiece

He could use this this power to make the business as creative as it needs to be. In businesses where creativity thrives (like Pixar), it’s usually because it comes from the top. 

But our Chris isn’t like that.

If we were to believe the 2011 report by Dr. Kevin Dutton, there’s a good chance that like many other MDs and CEOs, he has high psychopathic tendencies. It suggest the CEO role has the highest proportion of psychopaths of any profession. Psychopaths are self-centred arseholes who crave power and control. They lack empathy and treat others poorly.

To be fair to CEOs, the research suggests only around 5% of them are like this. (compared to around 1% of the total population). 

However, think about the CEOs you know or see in the news. Maybe it’s just us, but some of those negative behaviours seem more common than 5%.

Which brings us back to Chris

Chris’s barriers to creative thinking

Chris thrives on being in control. His diary’s tightly scheduled. Short meetings. Quick decisions. No small talk or waffle. Being decisive is what got him to the top. Even if he knows very little about the stuff he’s being asked to make decisions on. Like creativity. 

Creativity’s a challenge for people like Chris who like to be in control, Creative thinking works better when there’s more freedom and less control. However, people like Chris don’t let that stop them putting up barriers to creative thinking. 

Barrier 1 - I’m the boss, I need to make my mark on this

Chris’s first negative behaviour is his need to make his mark on everything. He can’t stand back and let others get on with it.

He’s so self-absorbed, he thinks everything he touches, he makes better. But that’s not a good way to encourage creative thinking. And because he makes it about him, he doesn’t always see what’s good for customers. 

Because that’s what really matters in creative thinking. Not whether the boss likes it, but whether the target audience like it.

Man on stage with a microphone talking to a large seated audience of what appear to be university students

Chris should focus on whether the creative idea moves the business forward, not whether it appeals to him.

It’s hard because most CEOs/MDs like Chris don’t come from a creative background. Let’s face it, they mainly come from Finance or Sales. Which means, they’ve no real expertise or experience in creativity. They’ve never had to be creative themselves. 

But because they’re the big boss, they feel they should have an opinion on it. Even if they’re less well-informed and less experienced than the creative experts who come up with ideas. Their ego forces them to give their opinions, whether it adds value or not. 

Motivation drives creativity

Leadership’s role should be to bring out the best in the people. Leaders like Chris have the opposite effect though. Their ill-advised feedback completely demotivates everyone involved in coming up with ideas. 

Motivation is an important driver of creativity. As Dan Pink covers in his book Drive, there’s 3 factors which help people feel fulfilled at work – autonomy, mastery and purpose. 

  • autonomy – being able to choose what you work on.
  • mastery – being able to work towards mastering a skill.
  • purpose – feeling you’re making a difference.  

(see our article on brand purpose for more on this). 

Chris doesn’t really get this though. 

Great leaders trust their teams to do great work. Instead, he feels the need to constantly interfere. 

Great leaders encourage learning and training to improve skills. He nitpicks and puts his opinions above those of the experts. 

Great leaders make people feel what they do adds real value. He makes it clear he thinks he’s the one who adds the most value. 

Chris’s bad leadership builds barriers to creative thinking. 

Barrier 2 - I can’t take a risk on anything risky

Even more frustrating in terms of barriers to creative thinking is Chris’s approach to risk-taking. He hates risks with a vengeance.

And that’s a challenge. Because risks are a big part of creative thinking. 

He worries that risky creative ideas will fail, and that’ll damage his reputation. 

And that’ll harm his chances of slinking off to a money-spinning non-executive directorship. Or whatever else these types do once they move on.  

Triangular warning sticker with large exclamation mark on a wall. Sticker has many rips and tears in it.

So, they play it safe. Squash ideas that push boundaries. The outrageous and the extraordinary aren’t for them. The aim’s to make sure nothing bad happens on their watch. 

But that’s terrible for creative thinking. Safe ideas keep you going in the short-term. But you need revolutionary ideas for long-term success. And that risk aversion creates real barriers to creative thinking. The best creativity pushes boundaries. People like Chris hate that. 

How to deal with Controlling Chris types

Bear in mind, types like Chris aren’t stupid. There’s a reason they get to the top. But their big egos create a blind spot. And if you’re smart, you can use that. 

So appeal to their ego by showing them how great leaders encourage creative thinking. It’s not about sucking up to them, but leading them towards lowering their barriers to creative thinking.

Share examples of successful bold creative thinking with them. Find some Ted Talks or Harvard Business Review articles, which show how the negative impact controlling micro managers have. Make them feel like they’re a better leader when they empower teams and butt out until they’re needed. Ask them to focus only on the big decisions and trust their teams to handle the rest.

Devious Dan (Daniella)

Devious Dan types are usually a level down from Controlling Chris. A Marketing Director or a Chief Marketing Officer, something like that.

Not being the big boss, his focus is more on the leadership team battles which go on in many boardrooms. Marketing lead most creative projects, so creativity’s something he worries about a lot.

Not so much in terms of being good at it, more how it impacts the way he works with other directors or C-suite functional leads.

Blond woman partially hidden behind a leafy bush

Dan worries a lot about the politics of that group. He worries about his reputation. And that means he worries how creative thinking will reflect on him.

If a creative idea takes off, he’ll make sure his role in “supporting the team” gets a lot of noise. But if it doesn’t, he’ll be quick to point the finger elsewhere. And to be honest, his preference is only to back sure things. Like Chris, anything risky is always going to be a hard sell with Dan.

In most businesses, the creative approval process means you have to involve Devious Dan types somewhere along the way. But that can be tricky because of the barriers to creative thinking they put up.

Barrier 1 - If it doesn’t work, it reflects badly on me

Like Chris, Dan is risk averse. He doesn’t want failures to harm his reputation. 

But because he’s a marketer, he knows there’s going to be some failures and mistakes along the way. His goal though is to make sure none of them stick to him.

There’s a couple of ways he’ll do that. 

He might for example deviously deflect away being seen as the owner for marketing decision-making. He’ll set up approval processes where half a dozen other people need to approve it before he’ll even look at it. And then he’ll ask for a change that means you need to go back and get all those approvals again. Creative ideas then get stuck in an approval version of purgatory.

Or he’ll ask delaying questions. 

Do we have the research to back it up? Where’s the evidence? What do competitors do? Will retail customers like it? Has anyone else done this before? 

Not necessarily bad questions, but they can take a lot of time to come with the answers. By the time you do, the idea’s probably lost momentum and you’ve missed your moment. 

This fear of a creative ideas damaging their reputation is a real barrier to creative thinking. For everyone else, it creates a fear of failure and there’s no motivation to push riskier and more breakthrough ideas.

Barrier 2 - Let’s keep it professional

Riskier and more breakthrough ideas also come crashing to a halt when they meet Dan’s other main barrier to creative thinking. That’s the need to keep everything feeling professional. To be sensible.

But what they think of as professional and sensible – formal processes, business plans and spreadsheets – isn’t what makes for great creative ideas. 

Great creative ideas often tap into areas that feel the opposite of these things. They’re quirky and unusual. They tap into emotions and bring to life the brand’s purpose and values.

Business meeting round with a man presenting in front of a screen to 5 colleagues

This all makes Dan feel very uncomfortable. 

In Rory Sutherland’s book Alchemy, he talks about the differences between sensible and what he calls non-sense ideas. Ideas that don’t make sense are often the most compelling. 

Sensible ideas may be safe. They’re inoffensive and no-one objects to them. But they’re also bland and forgettable. That doesn’t make for great creative thinking. 

The best ideas often don’t make sense and aren’t professional. That’s hard for Devious Dans to deal with.

How to deal with Devious Dans

The key to dealing with Devious Dan types is to first recognise his deviousness. He’s usually good at hiding it. It’s often the a surprise the first time he turns something around on you. Change his mind or totally contradicts himself just so nothing bad sticks to him. 

Similar to dealing with Controlling Chris types, you need to manage him. Manage his ego and his desire to build his reputation. 

That means heading off his devious ways at the pass. Make sure he shares his feedback and approvals publicly. It’s harder for him to backtrack when many people have heard him give an opinion. Use his confirmation bias (see our article on bias for more on this) to keep him on track. 

Documentation is your friend here. Your processes should document key decision. Take and send out meeting minutes, action points and agreements. Devious Dan doesn’t want to look like someone who changes his mind all the time. Get his opinions early and make sure they’re public. 

Interfering Ivan (Ivana)

The third type of person who creates barriers to creative thinking is someone we know as Interfering Ivan. (or Ivana if you prefer). 

He’s almost certainly from a non-marketing function.

But he feels the need to be involved in every marketing decision that might even remotely affect his team.

On just about every brief you write, where it says stakedholders, you’ll be writing his name first.

Young boy in a yellow jersey showing loudly into a microphone

And that includes decisions around creative ideas. Even if he’s had absolutely zero training or experience in creativity. He’ll still feel he needs to be involved and offer an opinion.

So, if he’s in finance, he wants to know how your creative idea will affect the profit and loss. He’ll ask you for a full 5 year business case and plan, with ROIs and Discounted Cash Flow projections. If you don’t provide these, there’ll be no budget to fund your idea. 

Or maybe he’s a senior IT guy. In which case get ready for all the questions about how your current systems will handle this new idea. What’s going to happen to efficiency, he’ll ask. And get ready to hear how long everything in IT takes. How expensive it is. Creative ideas mean change and Interfering Ivan types don’t really like change. 

Or, maybe he’s in one of those functions that have a vague link to marketing, You know the type. He’s in procurement and helps negotiate agency contracts. He’s in the regulatory team and approves creative work. And this vague link makes him feel like an expert in creativity. And he feels compelled to bombard you with thoughts, ideas and questions.

Barrier 1 - Can we kill this with numbers?

You may have come across the whole left brain equals logical and right brain equals creativity concept before.

The idea we use different parts of our brain for different mental tasks is a good one (although brain scans show the whole “left” and “right” brain is a bit of a myth in reality).

And it’s also true different people tend to have a preference for one or the other. Your brain an do both, but there’s usually one which comes more naturally than the other. 

Person holding 6 hundred dollar bills in front of them which have been set alight

Interfering Ivans are normally left-brained, logical and numbers driven. And that creates more barriers to creative thinking. They want to see the numbers behind everything. 

How many people liked it in the research? What’s the forecast? Where’s the evidence to back up the forecast? Can you go through the 5 year profit and loss line by line until they’re happy with it?

 In your day-to-day operations, these are all important questions. But with new creative ideas, you don’t always have the answers. Sometimes you just have to start doing them, and the answers come later.

Interfering Ivans hate that. Making decisions with incomplete information is hard for him. As per our three monkeys of creativity article, Ivan’s usually a Cool Blue type. He’ll use your lack of answers and missing information as a way to slow things down, or to kill projects off. 

Only backing things you’re 100% sure on creates more barriers to creative thinking. It delays action and kills off boldness. Action and boldness is what you want in creativity, and Interfering Ivan isn’t great at either.

Barrier 2 - I don’t understand it so let’s not do it

Ivan’s other main objection usually boils down to the fact that he doesn’t really get how creativity works.

Like Chris and Dan, he thinks too logically, and wants everything to make sense. If he can’t understand it, how will anyone else? 

But here’s the thing.

The creative idea’s usually aimed at customers, not people like Ivan. What Ivan needs to focus on is if customers get it, and like it. If they do, it doesn’t really matter what Ivan thinks.

hand showing a thumbs down

In our marketing barriers article, we share a story about a marketing manager trying to persuade their team to do something new and different. One of the barriers they run into is another manager called Sceptical Susan, who doesn’t understand the idea. So she rejects. And in that regard, she’s just a different version of an Interfering Ivan. 

If you don’t understand what creativity’s about and how it works, you shouldn’t be involved in the creative process. Most of the barriers to creative thinking come down to people not having expertise or experience in creativity. We share an example of how this works in writing in another article, but it applies to all the creative disciplines. 

To play your part in creativity, you need to learn how it works.

How to deal with Interfering Ivans

Unlike Chris / Dan types, there’s usually something other than ego behind why Ivan interferes. 

Your creative decision might impact him or his team, so he wants to protect or at least put his team in a good position.

He may even genuinely want to help you and not see his inputs as interfering.

The way to deal with Interfering Ivans is to listen. Take in what he says. Thank him for his input. 

Two people holding up large ears on a small dog

Sometimes, what he adds is good and makes your idea stronger. It’s good to get fresh perspectives

But yes sometimes, it’s just a damn distraction. His inputs can run your idea off the create rails.

If you see your idea wobbling, just think about whether you actually need his approval. In most cases, you can still acknowledge his input, without actually using it. He wants to be heard. Of course the does. Everyone does. But if he’s not leading the creative idea, ultimately he shouldn’t be able to stop it. 

Conclusion - Barriers to creative thinking

We love creativity. But it’s can be a tough area to love, because it comes with so many challenges.

Those get harder when creative thinking applies to teams. Because other people can make creative thinking hard work. Some people can’t help themselves creating barriers to creative thinking.

People like Controlling Chris, the big boss. He’s so ego driven, he has to make his mark on everything. But he’s also so risk averse, so only the safest ideas get though. Not great for creativity. 

Man with hand in front of camera and the words creativity stores here on his hand

Then, there’s Devious Dan. A marketing leader and political maneuverer. He quashes any idea that might have a negative impact on his reputation. And he’s not a big fan of bolder ideas that don’t seem professional. Also not great for creativity. 

And finally, there’s Interfering Ivan. A non-marketing person with strong and often inexpert opinion on marketing. His type throw up barriers to creative thinking all the time. Numbers to hit to prove the idea’s worth it. And objections because he doesn’t understand the idea.

The key really to getting past these barriers to creative thinking is to be prepared. Think creatively about how you manage these different types. Understand why they think that way, and position your idea so it’s to their benefit too. Help them understand that putting up barriers to creative thinking is not what great leaders do. Great leaders help knock down the barriers.

For another view on this topic, see our similar articles on barriers in marketing and in e-Commerce. Or contact us if you need help dealing with barriers to creative thinking in your business.

Photo credits

Hand / Stop (adapted) : Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Thumbs up / down : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Man shouting at phone : Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

Man giving speech : Photo by Miguel Henriques on Unsplash

Attention sign : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Woman peeking out from bush : Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Business meeting : Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Shout (adapted) : Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Money on fire : Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Dog ears : Photo by kyle smith on Unsplash

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