Is your creativity blocked?

Designing learning experiences can be a demanding task, particularly if you’re devoted to coming up with creative strategies to engage your audience while facilitating learning.

At times, however, it feels as though the well is dry and your creative flow has disappeared. This can be due to creative blocks, which you can overcome once you recognize them.

Creativity Defined

Creativity manifests in many ways, making it difficult for psychologists to study, research and define it. Think of how creativity informs technical innovation, artistic expression, scientific endeavors, individual life choices, problem solving and game play. Such a variety of domains!

Although psychologists don’t agree on a definition, there is a general sense that creativity involves the production of an idea, action, or object that is new and valued. The value of a creative endeavor depends on the circumstances or cultural context.

You may generate creative solutions to life’s problems every day without even realizing it. But when you need to produce creative work on demand, you can find yourself stuck.

Creative Obstacles

In the book, Conceptual Blockbusting, author James Adams presents four categories of common obstacles that block creativity: perceptual blocks; emotional blocks; cultural and environmental blocks; and intellectual and expressive blocks. Understanding these blocks, as described below, is the first step to overcoming them.

1. Perceptual Blocks

There are many forces that influence our perceptions, including expectations, bias, cultural values and past experience. This causes us to see the world through our own filters and our own stereotypes. When perceptual blocks deter us from perceiving a problem clearly, it hampers creative problem-solving. According to Adams, we often reject evidence that violates our preconceived ideas.

How can we solve a problem when we aren’t perceiving it accurately? For example, if an instructional designer harbors false ideas about audience members due to stereotyping, then he or she can’t properly perceive the training context in order to create the best learning strategies.

This happened to me several years ago when I was told by the sponsor of a course for physicians that the audience members preferred straight lectures and no games. This was what they were used to in medical school and continuing education courses, he said. But as I got to know the audience members, I discovered that although they might not have time for games, they were willing to learn through simulations of real-life events and problem solving. And this approach was much more engaging.

2. Emotional Blocks

Many people are not comfortable with taking risks and they fear making mistakes. Much of our traditional educational system is based on coming up with one right answer. When a lack of confidence or fear of rejection is strong, it can become an obstacle to the free flow of creative juices. Conceptual Blockbusting lists other emotional blocks too, such as: a preference for making judgments rather than generating ideas; an intolerance for ambiguity; and an inability to take the time to allow ideas to incubate.

According to Adams, these emotions can interfere with our ability to think up, manipulate and explore new ideas. This matches what brain research demonstrates:   that signals from the senses go directly and quickly to emotional centers of the brain, like the amygdala, even before one can analyze a situation rationally. As the emotional centers in the brain create an automatic response, it can choke creativity.

3. Cultural and Environmental Blocks

Conceptual Blockbusting points out that we are part of many cultures, related to age, ethnicity, religion, values and of course, the broader culture. We absorb underlying beliefs from our cultural interactions and some of these can interfere with creative innovation. For example, it’s common for adults to think that play and fantasy are for children; that logic is more important than feeling; and that doing nothing (while ideas incubate) is lazy. These are the types of messages that infiltrate our minds in a slow drip. And these are the types of messages that can potentially block creativity.

Psychologists say that creativity thrives in a permissive environment, but some people spend their days in a workplace that frowns upon innovative thinking. Furthermore, the traditional workplace is often filled with distractions that interrupt your creative flow. In some workplaces, competition between employees, autocratic bosses or a lack of team cooperation can bury creative notions. These are the environmental blocks we most overcome. For suggestions, see How Creative is Your Environment?

4. Intellectual and Expressive Blocks

Intellectual and expressive blocks may occur when you tend to approach a problem from only one perspective. Sometimes a problem is in one domain but must be solved in another domain. If you tend to be inflexible in your thinking, then this could block the generation of creative solutions.

For example, perhaps your client insists on using video to demonstrate a process, but you’re having trouble figuring out how to stage the whole thing. Or perhaps there isn’t enough budget to pay for video production costs. Maybe the solution is in another domain. Maybe the process can be demonstrated in a series of sketches or photographs and mocking up a prototype will convince your client otherwise. Cognitive flexibility lets you cross domain boundaries.

I believe every person is born with the potential to engage in a creative life. Various societal practices well as life circumstances can work against this potential. Creativity is not only important when designing training, but it enriches our lives and the lives of others. Creative acts help culture and society evolve. Stay tuned for a future article for ways to enhance your creative potential.

James L. Adams. Conceptual Blockbusting, 2001: Perseus Publishing.

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