All Articles Leadership Management What locks out creative thinking is clear and simple. So, too, is what frees it

What locks out creative thinking is clear and simple. So, too, is what frees it

What can we do to unlock our mental thinking and innovation? Read on for advice from two authors who've written on the subject.

4 min read


What locks out creative thinking is clear and simple. So, too, is what frees it

Unsplash photo/SmartBrief illustration

In the bluntly titled book “A Whack on the Side of the Head,” creative consultant and author Roger von Oech suggested we all have a lot in common, at least when it comes to how we most often think, work and take action.

It wasn’t intended as a compliment.

He was writing about creativity and how it gets constrained. And the limits he believed we put on ourselves — what he called mental locks — have implications for every organization, every leader and every person seeking ways to thrive in a deeply uncertain environment.

The red herring of uncertain times is that too often we think the times themselves are what cause our plans to go off the rails. We eagerly assign responsibility to the volatility of the moment for our inability to turn the ambiguity to our advantage. Without a doubt, the environment plays a role. But the real problem is in our heads.

Von Oech didn’t just wax philosophic about the idea that we block ourselves from thinking more openly and creatively. He outlined 10  specific mental locks, making clear that such barriers are self-imposed. They are not natural-born limitations. They are however, deceivingly simple in their form and function.

Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, in their earliest appearances they don’t even present as locks or appear as anything to make a big deal about. But unrecognized and unaddressed, these simple habits build into a formidable wall, blocking out creative thought. Worse than blocking our creative thoughts, they become our primary mode of thinking, locking us in to fixed ways when what we need most to deal with a changing landscape is to be open.

As the grip of these mental locks tightens, not only do we find it tough to come up with innovative solutions to our challenges, often we conclude that we lack creative capacity at all, further capping our ability to adapt and thrive.

What locks, you might wonder have this power? Among von Oech’s top 10  are:

  • believing there’s a single right answer
  • screening out anything that doesn’t appear familiar or logical
  • overemphasizing practicality and denigrating play as frivolous
  • trying to avoid ambiguity and error at all costs

The truly powerful insight is this: Every single one is a choice. Made repeatedly, such choices engineer the prison walls and barred doors that make it increasingly difficult to get outside our outmoded ways to find approaches that match the challenges we face. The solution? The very thing that gets us locked in in the first place: choice.

Von Oech emphasized making the choice not to let these mental locks engage. In “The Rise: Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery,” Sarah Lewis goes one important step further. She encourages us to become mental grazers. Mental grazing is about actively training yourself to look beyond your own borders as a matter of habit, but to do so less with the intent of tearing down the barriers in one fell swoop, or coming up with a silver bullet innovation, and instead with the simple intention of introducing new ideas, images, ways and concepts we know little about.

Bit by small bit. It’s the practice of such mental grazing and opening up that matters most. When pursued ongoing, mental grazing naturally chips away at those Fort Knox locks in our head and our habits, exposing the creative capacity each of us born with.

Sometimes the key to our problems lies within in our own abilities, if we just know which locks to pick and what to set free.


Larry Robertson is an innovation advisor who works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. Robertson was named a Fulbright Scholar in 2021. He’s also the author of two award-winning books: “The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity” and “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress.” As founder of Lighthouse Consulting, he has for over 25 years guided entrepreneurial ventures and their leaders through growth to lasting success. His third book, “Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times,” will be released June 1, 2021.

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