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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? : Creative thinking drives new ideas. But it’s often hard to get everyone on board. Some type of people create barriers to creative thinking and new ideas. We share examples of the 3 most common types of barrier creators, and how to handle them. Read this to learn how to lower the barriers to creative thinking in your business. 

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 businesses 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 who run a function which controls something (budgets, approvals, teams etc.) which influences how creative a business can be. Their need for control is what creates the barriers to creative thinking. They often don’t realise the effect this has on others. Part of your challenge is to open their eyes to this blind spot. 

To bring each type to life, we’ve created some short character portraits. They’re a composite of people we know who do these things. Though we’ve made them all men here, it’s usually their leadership position not their gender which drives the behaviour. (we added alternate female names if you’d rather picture them that way). 

Controlling Chris (Christine)

First off, meet Chris.

He’s the big boss. Managing Director. Chief Executive Officer. Chairman. Some fancy sounding title like that. Maybe even multiple job titles. 

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 suggests 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 risk 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, he plays it safe. Squashes ideas that push boundaries. The outrageous and the extraordinary aren’t for him. His aim’s to make sure nothing bad happens on his 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 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.

Usually the creative approval process involves interacting with Devious Dan types at some point. And that’s tricky because of the barriers to creative thinking he puts up.

Not being the big boss, his focus is more on the leadership team battles which go on in boardrooms. Politics and his reputation matter a lot to him.  

Blond woman partially hidden behind a leafy bush

The marketing team leads most creative projects, so what the business does with creativity affects his reputation. If a creative idea takes off, he’ll make sure everyone knows his role in “leading the team”. But if it doesn’t, he’ll be quick to point the finger of blame.

Barrier 1 - Delay it until the idea dies

Like Controlling Chris, he’s risk averse. He prefers to play it safe. 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. That’s what makes him devious. 

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

For example, he might deviously delay the process of marketing decision-making. He’ll set up approval processes where half a dozen other people need to approve an idea before he’ll look at it. And when it finally reaches him, he’ll ask for a change which means you need all those other people to approve again. Creative ideas get stuck in an approval version of purgatory. And if you complain, it’ll be your fault for not having a better idea. Urgh.

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 it takes time to answer them. And by the time you do, the idea’s lost momentum, and you’ve probably missed your chance. 

This fear of creative ideas damaging a leader’s reputation is a real barrier to creative thinking. It makes everyone else afraid too. There’s no incentive 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 he thinks of as professional and sensible – formal processes, business plans and spreadsheets – isn’t great for creativity.

Creative ideas usually come from areas which are 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 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 a surprise the first time he turns something around on you. 

Remember he only wants the good stuff to stick to him, not the bad. So if it looks like something’s going to go wrong, expect him to change his mind. To throw you under the bus so nothing bounces back on him.

Try to head off his devious ways ahead of time. When he gives feedback and approvals, makes sure lots of people see it. It’s harder for him to backtrack later when his opinions are public. Use his confirmation bias (see our article on bias for more on this) to keep him consistent. 

Document everything. Written meeting minutes, action points and agreements are hard to dispute later. Devious Dan doesn’t want to look like someone who doesn’t check these, or someone who changes his mind all the time. Use his need to protect his reputation to keep him doing the things you need him to.

Interfering Ivan (Ivana)

The third type of person who creates barriers to creative thinking is someone we call Interfering Ivan.

He’s usually from a non-marketing function. But he feels the need to be involved in every marketing decision which might even remotely affect his team.

That bit on your brief where you write who the stakeholders are? Ivan’s name appears there a lot. 

And that includes decisions about creative ideas. Even if he’s had no training or experience in creativity. He wants to be involved. 

Young boy in a yellow jersey showing loudly into a microphone

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 have these, you won’t get any funding for 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. How it’s going to impact the company’s efficiency. And get ready to hear how long everything in IT takes. How expensive it is. Creative ideas mean change. Change is not a good thing for Interfering Ivan types. 

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?

There’s a well-known theory that the left part of our brain favours logic, and the right part of our brain favours creativity. And that some of us are more left-brained and others more right-brained.

While brain scans show the left/right brain thing is a bit of a myth, people do still tend to have a preference for one way of thinking over the other.

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

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

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 everyone is happy with it?

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

Interfering Ivan hates 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 ideas off. 

Waiting for 100% of the details to be right adds 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 comes from the fact he doesn’t really get how creativity works.

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

But here’s the thing.

The creative idea’s aimed at customers, not people like Ivan. That’s what Ivan should focus on. Do customers get it? Do they like it? If they do, Ivan’s view isn’t relevant.

hand showing a thumbs down

You need to understand how the creative process works, if you want to be involved in it. Most of the barriers to creative thinking come from people who don’t have creative expertise or experience. (see our copywriting challenges article for an example of this). Help these types understand how it works and you remove many of the barriers.

How to deal with Interfering Ivans

What drives Ivan types is usually different from what drives Chris and Dan types.

He’s usually trying to look out for his team, rather than himself.

Your creative decision will have an impact on his team. He wants to make sure it’s a positive, not negative impact. 

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, that makes your idea stronger. It’s good to get fresh perspectives. But other times, yes, his input may run your idea off the creative rails.

If that happens, ask yourself if you actually need his approval. Just because someone gives you feedback doesn’t mean you always have to act on it. And if you’ve already got Controlling Chris and Devious Dan on your side, maybe you can ask them to help you get Ivan over the line? Because that’s what their job should really be about in creative thinking.

Conclusion - Barriers to creative thinking

We love creativity. But it can be a tough area to love, because it has so many challenges.

And the more people involved, the harder it gets. Other people make creative thinking hard work. Some types of people naturally put up 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 risk averse. 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 manoeuvrer. He quashes ideas he fears might harm his reputation. Especially the ones he finds unprofessional. Also not great for creativity. 

And finally, there’s Interfering Ivan. A non-marketing person with strong and often ill-informed opinions about 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.

Preparation is the key to getting past these barriers to creative thinking. Think about these different types of people and why creativity makes them act the way they do. Educate them on how creative thinking works, and how it benefits them and the business. The more they see the benefits, the less they’ll put up barriers to creative thinking.

Check out our articles on barriers in marketing and in e-Commerce for more on this topic. Or contact us if you need help dealing with barriers to creative thinking in your business.

(Note : This article also features in our review of our most popular lessons from 2022).

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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