Four Killers of Creativity (and how to avoid them)

When I was little, my father (whose Ph.D was on the topic of creativity in science) would do a creativity experiment on my siblings and me.  The game was a sort of ‘spot the different images in the clouds’ but for academics!

My Father, The Leader's Digest, by Suzi McAlpine

My Father…professor and creative thinker.

He would get out the family slide projector and put up slides deliberately out of focus.

Then he would ask us to describe to him what we saw in the fuzzy images, as he slowly brought the photos into focus.

In this little experiment (oh the joys of having a professor for a father) my dad would encourage us to come up with as many different ideas as we could, for what it was we thought we saw.

My father taught me the first lesson in encouraging creativity – the idea that there is no ONE right answer, rather there are MANY right answers.


How many times have you heard the words, “I’m not really the creative type”?

I believe creativity is an oasis within all of us.

What’s more, creativity and innovation can bring huge gains for organisations and individuals.

Take, for example Missing Link’s office in Johannesburg.  The company, which designs business presentations, says “If you’re going to spend most of your life at the office, you should work in an office you love” .

They believe happy team members are more creative and innovative, and I am sure this is something we can all agree on, yet few of us actually adhere to.

Missing Link's Office Encourages Creativity, The Leader's Digest by Suzi McAlpine

Missing Link’s office – a environment of ‘organised chaos’ where creativity is encouraged and employees are happy.

But there are enemies of creativity and here are some of them:

1.  There is only one right answer.  This talks to my father’s point.  This approach encourages us to think in linear, black and white terms.

Alternative approach: When you get to an answer, ask yourself and your team, “is there another way we can solve this that we have not thought of?”

2.  Mistakes are bad. Organisational cultures which punish people for making mistakes stifle risk taking and risk taking is a precursor to innovation.  That’s not to say that making the same mistake repeatedly is a bright idea either.

But think of the Post-it note.  This would not be here today if some scientist had not made a balls up with the glue.

3.  It’s my way or the highway.  This approach seems to become more prevalent the further up the organisation you go. As a leader, the temptation (or pressure?) to have all the right answers can discourage divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is another close friend and ally of creativity.

Alternative approach: Wherever possible, wait for others to put forward their ideas before you have your say and encourage different ways of looking at a problem. “What would it look like if we looked at it from x point of view?”

“What if..” is a wonderful phrase for creative thinking.

4.  Another way to stifle creativity is to liberally pepper your conversations with what I call ‘creativity killing’ phrases.

Examples: It won’t work. It’s not part of my job. We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work. Too early. Too late. Great idea but not for us. It’s too expensive. It’s against company policy.  Let’s shelve it for now. It’s not in the budget. And my all time favourite, “let’s be practical”.*

There is a time and place for serious evaluation of ideas, but often this is done way too early in the conversation piece.


Try this little exercise to encourage divergent thinking and creative problem solving.

Take two completely random things which seemingly have no correlation.  For example, an orange and architecture.  Write down as many ways or ideas that you can use the two together.

This is a great way to get a brainstorming session started or to kick start right brain thinking.

(*Adapted from 50 phrases to kill ideas and stifle creativity, Management SA, 1995)

Recommended Reading – A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative by Roger Von Oech.

A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech, The Leader's Digest by Suzi McAlpine

A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech.

This is a fantastic book written by a well respected author and expert on creativity, who has worked with some of the world’s leading organisations.

– Suzi


  1. Emma Dean (née Traynor) on October 24, 2012 at 2:49 am

    Love your blog, Suze. Also always loved the way you always listened to my ideas even when it they may not have been appreciated by those who had to do everything by the book xx

  2. Matthew McAlpine on October 22, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    I had forgotten all about those slide shows until now – brought back some terrific, fun evenings 🙂 A great analogy Siss. x

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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