Barriers to finding the best solution

Some of the reasons we do not find the most effective solutions to our problems have been mentioned already. This article looks at a range of factors known as 'blocks' which can hinder your problem solving. It will help you to learn to recognise and overcome them.

What are problem solving blocks?

Fear and guilt

A block is anything which prevents us finding an effective solution to a problem. We all experience them, but of different types and intensities. The blocks have been grouped in various ways by different authors according to their cause, e.g.:

  • perceptual
  • emotional
  • intellectual
  • expressive
  • environmental
  • cultural

It's important that you are able to recognise when blocks are hindering your problem solving so that you can take action to overcome them.

What causes these blocks?

The labels applied to these blocks give some clues to their origins.

Perceptual blocks arise from the way we have learnt to recognise information from the world around us. We develop habits of 'seeing' the world, which sometimes can get in the way of finding the best solution to a problem, eg seeing only the most obvious solution.

Emotional blocks arise when our emotional needs conflict with the situation, eg when we do not propose a radical. solution to a problem because we feel it might sound ridiculous and make us look foolish. 

Intellectual blocks are caused by us not being able to assimilate information in the ways required to solve a problem, eg not knowing how to evaluate ideas to select the most effective solution.

Expressive blocks arise when we are unable to commu­nicate in the way required to produce an effective solution, eg not being able to express our ideas effectively to those who have to implement the solution.            .


Failure and problems

Environmental blocks are caused by. external obstacles in the social or physical environment, which prevent us from solving a problem effectively, eg distractions from the task.

Cultural blocks result from our conditioning to accept what is expected or 'normal' in a given situation, eg when the work ethic says that we must be serious-minded, but finding an effective solution requires some playful fantasy. 

All of the blocks, except those caused by the physical environment, arise through learning or lack of it, either our own or that of people who influence us.

We can overcome most of our own blocks permanently by re-learning, and overcome other people's blocks which hinder us by learning ways to sidestep them.

The following is an explanation of some of the main blocks that exist under each category heading.

A. Perceptual blocks

Perceptual blocks exist when we are unable to clearly perceive a problem or the information needed to solve it effectively .They include:

Seeing only what you expect to see

To recognise situations we look for patterns of key features which we have learnt by experience represent a particular situation~ If the key features 'fit' we assume the situations are the same. This often obscures the "true nature of a problem, either because we exclude relevant information (because it isn't a key feature or didn't occur in the past), or include information simply because we assume it is there.


In recognising situations we automatically apply labels (like door, machine, laziness) which can prevent us seeing all the features of. the situation. Often we don't look beyond the obvious. For example, if someone isn't working as hard as we would like and we apply the label 'lazy' to that person, we might overlook the possibility that boredom with monotonous work is the problem, and not laziness.

Not recognising problems

A surprising number of problems go unnoticed or are recognised only when the effects have become severe and emergency action is required.

Not seeing the problem in perspective

This is related to some of the previous blocks, and results from:

  • taking too narrow a view of the situation, so that we recognise only part of the problem or the information required to solve it
  • failing to recognise how different parts of the problem are related
  • seeing only superficial aspects of the problem, so that the solution is inadequate
  • failing to see the problem from the point of view of other people who are involved.

Mistaking cause and effect

Many problems are recognised by their effects or the absence of expected results. If cause and effect are confused then we are unlikely to find an effective solution. For example, if goods do not arrive and we assume that the supplier is late in despatching them when in fact our ordering department has failed to send out the order, then our search for solutions will be misdirected. In this situation the late despatch of the goods is an effect of the problem and not a cause.

B. Emotional blocks

Emotional blocks exist when we perceive a threat to our emotional needs. These needs differ in type and strength from person to person but include needs for achievement, recognition, order, belonging and self-esteem. The emotional blocks include:

Fear of making mistakes or looking foolish

This is the most significant emotional block because it affects most of us and is difficult to overcome. As a result of traditional schooling, the expected reaction when we make a mistake or suggest radically different ideas is laughter and ridicule. No one likes being laughed at and as a result we learn to fear making mistakes and to avoid suggesting ideas which are different.

This block becomes more severe in the presence of collea­gues of a different rank to our own. With .those who are more senior we imagine that we will be thought inexperienced or immature. With those more junior we want to protect our image as being knowledgeable and experienced.


Being impatient to solve a problem may be due either to a desire to succeed quickly or to end the discomfort or loss caused by the problem. This has two major consequences. We tend to grab the first solution which comes along, without adequate analysis of the problem, and we evaluate ideas. too fast, almost instinctively rejecting unusual ideas. Either way, our solution is unlikely to be the most effective available.

Avoiding anxiety

This is another common block. Some of- us are more susceptible to anxiety and also find it more unpleasant than others. Many factors can cause anxiety, including high risk, disorder and ambiguity, long-term stress, and fear for our security. The effects on problem solving include avoiding risks, indecision in situations which are not 'black and white', excessive reliance on others' judgement, and avoiding challenging the status quo.            .

Fear of taking risks

This leads to the avoidance of situations where the outcome is uncertain or could be unpleasant. A major cause is our desire for security. The consequences include setting objectives within easy reach, so that there is no risk of failure, and accepting known solutions in preference to the unusual because their value is certain. A liking for taking risks and over-confidence in being able to avoid unpleasant , consequences are more dangerous blocks.

Need for order

This is related to avoiding anxiety. It can lead to an inability to cope with the frustration of situations which are not clear cut or where ambiguities exist.

Lack of challenge

This may arise when the problem is routine or the benefits/losses are not significant to us. The result is that either we don't tackle the problem or we take the easiest, quickest route to solution.

C. Intellectual blocks

Intellectual blocks exist when we don't have the necessary thinking skills to find a successful solution, or are unable to use them effectively. They include:

Lack of knowledge or skill in the problem solving process

This is one of the most common blocks. It includes: inadequate skills in analytical and creative thinking; an inflexible strategy, using one approach for every type of problem; the inability to use the various problem solving techniques. They can all lead to ineffective solutions.

Lack of creative thinking

This is always caused by an inability to use the skills rather than their absence, resulting from the dominance of analytical thinking in our day-to-day lives and a lack of practice.

Inflexible thinking

This is a difficulty in switching from one type of thinking skill to another, such as from analysis to idea generation or from verbal to visual thinking.

 Not being methodical

This is perhaps the most common block. A step-by-step approach is essential to solving problems effectively.

Lack of knowledge or skill in using the 'Language' of the problem

If a problem involves a language that we cannot understand or cannot use, such as specialist jargon or statistical analysis, we will not be able to tackle the problem effectively. Similarly, we may use an inappropriate language, such as trying to find an error in accounts by describing the situation verbally rather than analysing it mathematically.

Using inadequate information

This happens when we do not make sufficient effort to collect the relevant information, or do not understand what information is relevant, where to find it, or how it relates to the problem. Similarly, using inaccurate information can lead us to the wrong conclusions.

D. Expressive blocks

Expressive blocks exist when we do not have the knowledge or skills necessary to communicate or record ideas in the ways required. They are caused by an inability to 'use 'languages' effectively, such as words, drawings, mathe­matics, scientific symbols, and so on. They include:

Using the wrong language

Some problems are more effectively solved or communicated using one language rather than another. For example, we are unlikely to get very far if we record data only verbally when the problem requires quantitative analysis. Similarly, people may find it hard to grasp our meaning if we try to explain our feelings about a situation using mathematics instead of words.

Unfamiliarity with a particular application of a language

The most obvious example is the difficulty many people have making a speech, even though they can write their ideas effectively on paper.

Inadequate explanations

These can result from a real lack of information about what you are trying to convey, or from assuming that your audience already has some of the information when, they don't.

A passive management style

A situation where we are reluctant to or find it difficult to exert influence may prevent us communicating our ideas effectively. This is particularly important when people need to be convinced of the validity of ideas.

A dominant management style

This is when we exert oppressive control, either deliberately or unconsciously, and can make those we are communicat­ing with automatically reluctant to accept what we say or hostile to our ideas.

E. Environmental blocks

Environmental blocks, which exist when the social or physical environment hinders our problem solving, include:

Management style

The way in which we are managed can influence both our attitude to problem solving and the freedom we have to .create and implement ideas. For example, if our ideas are dismissed constantly with comments such as 'No, it wouldn't work because ...', or 'No, we've tried it before and it didn't work', we soon give up trying.


Due to excessive noise and interruptions, these affect some people more than others, but in general they have a detrimental effect on problem solving.

Physical discomfort

This can create a distraction as well as resulting in stress. or lethargy depending on the circumstances. For example, poorly designed chairs may create a distraction by giving us backache which, in turn, can make us irritable and less interested in any type of work.

Lack of support

This comes in many forms. For example, we may need specialist information, advice, skills or other resources, or authority to take action. A more pervasive aspect of this block is a lack of encouragement and the necessary organisational structure to support and exploit people's ideas.


Stress due to pressure of work and deadlines, affects people differently. For those who are susceptible to stress it can be a powerful block, hindering creative thinking in particular.

Lack of communication

This has a number of effects, including inability to get the information you require and a lack of encouragement.

Monotonous work

This can dull enthusiasm for solving problems and put us onto 'automatic pilot', making us blind to problems when they occur.

Expectations of others

These can influence both our general perf9rmance in problem solving and the objectives we set ourselves. For example, if our peers and superiors are happy with a regular solution to a problem we may feel that it's a waste of time looking for anew; more effective solution. On the other hand, if we are expected to find an innovative solution we are likely to make a greater effort. 

F. Cultural blocks

Cultural blocks exist when our problem solving is hindrance by accepting that some things are good or right and are done, while others are bad or wrong and are not done, So that we become bound by custom. They include: 

Unquestioning acceptance of the status quo

There is a tendency to conform to established ideas an methods of working and not to question them or express ideas which depart from them. If something is not normal done we tend to look for the reasons why it can't be done or why it wouldn't work, rather that looking for 'the reasons why it should be done or why it could work.

Dislike of change

The attitude that tradition is preferable to change can arise, from the need for security. If a situation is acceptable as it is, any change, which must involve some uncertainty, is felt to be threatening by some people. However, as we become more and more accustomed to change this block is becoming less common, but there must be reasons for change. Change for change's sake can be dangerous.

Fantasy and humour are not productive

There is still a widespread belief that fantasy and humour have no place in the serious business of problem solving. Subjective reports from innovators suggest otherwise. Fantasy and humour are connected by one common feature - the unlikely combination of ideas (think about it' next time you hear a good joke - the punch line is always unexpected). Innovative solutions to problems arise in the same way - by making a link between apparently unrelated ideas.

Feelings, intuition and subjective judgements are unreliable'

There is a strong bias towards reason, logic and quantitative judgements because they can be measured and commu­nicated in accurate terms. Feelings, intuition and subjective judgements, which cannot be measured or communicated as effectively, are seen as unrealiable and are mistrusted.

Even in mathematics, one of the most logical of sciences, intuition is often reported as playing a key role in, problem solving. A good problem solver needs to be able to use both objective, logical methods and subjective, intuitive methods in the search for solutions.

Over-emphasis on competition or cooperation

A strongly competitive environment (for recognition, promotion, and so on) can make people unwilling to listen to the ideas of those with whom they are competing. Similarly, in a strongly cooperative environment we may avoid expressing new ideas because we don't want to stand out from the crowd.


Some actions and ideas are excluded from problem solving because they are regarded as distasteful, or are harmful, or contravene accepted moral codes. For example, in a test of creativity a group of students were given a problem to solve using calculus. They had to follow certain rules and the objective was to see who produced the largest number of different routes to the correct solution. A few students produced a lot more than the others because they chose to break the rules they were told to follow. 

Although eventually we may not decide to break a taboo, there is no harm in breaking them in thought. This can often lead to new perspectives on a problem.

The labels given to all of these blocks only serve to help explain them. There is considerable overlap between some of the blocks and this can make it hard to recognise them if you look for labels. The most effective way to recognise blocks is to examine your thinking when you are solving problems and be aware constantly for factors which are hindering your progress.

Read the next article  Overcoming the Blocks to Problem Solving

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Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.
Marie Curie

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