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Conceptual Blocks
Bernard Godfrey
Siena Heights University
Professor Markusic


Conceptual Blocks

Problem solving can be described in several ways. A broad way to describe it is a planned
act to correct something. According to D'Zurilla and Nezu (2001) it can be described in a more
focused way. They say it is The self-directed cognitive-behavioral process by which a person
attempts to identify or discover effective or adaptive solutions for specific problems encountered
in everyday living (p. 212). Discovering these effective and adaptive solutions can be
challenging. There is rarely a time in ones life that some type of problem solving skills arent
needed. Especially when it comes to ones job. My Job as a Radiology Manager is no exception.
There are many times in my day where problem solving is necessary. I believe to be a good
manager, one must be a good problem solver. If there were no problems in organizations, there
would be no need for managers (Whetton, & Cameron, 2002, p. 160). For one to be a successful
problem solver, one has to first realize his conceptual blocks. We will discuss what conceptual
blocks arewhether they apply to my joband what I can do in terms of an action plan in order
to promote creativity.
Four Major Conceptual Blocks
Conceptual blocks are things that may block ones ability to conceptually solve a
problem. According to Whetton and Cameron (2002) there are four major blocks. They are
constancy, commitment, compression, and complacency (pp. 167-179). Constancy is when a
person becomes wedded to one way of looking at a problem or to using one approach to define,
describe, or solve it (p. 168). In other words, someone gets used to the idea of one approach and
does not stray from that original approach. Whetton and Cameron tell the story of Percy Spencer.
Percy spencer is the man who helped develop the magnetron that produced radar radio
frequencies during the Second World War. It was a product that helped win the war. However,


after the war was over there was little need for the product and sales dropped to zero. Percy
Spencer knew there had to be another use for the product. Spencer remembered when he was
testing the product his flesh would heat up. Through innovation and creative thinking Spencer
realized he could use this product to cook food. He created todays microwave oven (p. 169).
Had Spencer been closed minded to the idea that there was only one use for his product he would
have never created the microwave. This is a classic example of overcoming the conceptual block
of constancy.
The second major conceptual block is commitment. People have a tendency to do what
has worked for them in the past. This, for the most part, is usually a good trait; however, when it
comes to problem solvingdwelling on what has worked in the past can restrict the thinking
process in order to solve a given problem. Whetton and Cameron (2002) call this perpetual
stereotyping (p. 171). Another development of the commitment block is ignoring
commonalities (p. 171). This is when one ignores the commonalities of the pieces creating the
problem because he is committed to one way of thinking. Creative people without the conceptual
block of commitment are able to find one solution to sometimes multiple problems (p. 171).
When Spencer felt his flesh heating up during the testing of the magnetron, he was able to think
creatively. He realized if his flesh heated up, why not food? In the past the device was not
designed for heating up anything. It was designed to produce radio frequencies. Had he only
thought of its original intent we would not have the luxury of heating up a cup of tea in 30
The third conceptual block is compression. Compression is when one looks at a problem
with a narrow focus. They filter out important information and can miss the root of the problem.
Similarly, they tend to not filter out the irrelevant information. It is the inability to separate the


unimportant from the important (Whetton, & Cameron, 2012, p. 174). In his 1998 book
Effective Problem Solving, Steve Kneeland says you should use a six step process to problem
solving. One of the steps is Gathering the relevant facts (p. 16). He says rarely will we have
time to get all the information we need. Stillto understand the problem, we need at the very
least to collect and analyze the critical facts relevant to the situation. Indeed, its not enough just
to gather them. We have to understand what they mean (p. 36). Understanding the meaning of
the information is the key to overcoming the compression conceptual block. According to
Payne, Gallagher, Eck, and Frank (2013), when collecting information you should recreate the
problem or build a representation of the problem (p. 671). They say a lack of understanding
leads to superficial answers to problems as well as blindly following procedure (p. 671). When
we are posed with a problem we need to look at all the informationweed out what is not
importantand come up with a resolution based on the important information. Overcoming the
conceptual block of compression will help filter what is important and what is not.
The last major conceptual block is complacency. Complacency is not a factor of bad
thought processes, but is a factor of being scared, the possibility of being insecure, mental
blindness, or just plain mental laziness (Whetton, & Cameron, 2012, p.175). Not being willing
to ask questions, to gather the facts, or get the information needed can result in the inability of
being able to solve a problem. Sometimes people think they will look stupid or inexperienced.
When they ask questions or try to gather information, they may look ignorant. When we think
creatively, we use the right hemisphere of our brain, the left is more logical. For instance the left
is for organization and planning. Studies have found that people who are the better problem
solvers have the ability to use both sides of their brain (Whetton, & Cameron, 2012). They are
not complacent in the gathering of the information. Now that we have discussed the definitions


of the four major conceptual blocks in problem solving, am I able to apply this to my everyday
life as a Radiology Manager?
Real Life Application
At my place of employment we have many strict protocols and procedures. Things that
have worked in the past tend to stay that way. In a healthcare facility a patients safety could be
at stake. We tend to do what has proven to work. Most hospitals run a bureaucratic style
management with an agency theory type governance for a reason. Policies and procedures are
needed in order to protect human lives. However, there are times we need to solve problems and
make changes to these policies and procedures. One way we solve problems and try to avoid
conceptual blocks is through a Root Cause Analysis or RCA. If we discover a problem that could
cause potential harm, it is reported to our quality department. The quality department then
summons all the personnel involved to begin the process. When speaking of the RCA, Doggett
(2005) says Beneath every problem is a cause for that problem. In order to solve a problem one
must identify the cause of the problem and take steps to eliminate the cause. If the root cause of a
problem is not identified, then one is merely addressing the symptoms and the problem will
continue to exist. For this reason, identifying and eliminating root causes of problems is of
utmost importance (p. 34). Conceptual blocks can increase the risk of not getting to the root
cause of the problem; therefore, we use the RCA process.
RCAs are a process of going step by step through everything that takes place in a certain
procedure. The procedure is then analyzed for potential problem areas. These problem areas are
corrected and new policies and procedures are written around those findings. The RCA is a great
tool for solving procedural problems in the hospital, but it doesnt solve all problems that have


the potential for conceptual blocks. Problems such as employee satisfaction, employee morale, or
employee engagement. For this we use other ways.
Employee satisfaction is addressed through employee engagement surveys. I believe, at
my place of employment, we have a culture that is open to opinions and ideas without negative
recourse. According to Swathi (2014) it important to have a culture that is open to opinions. She
says Employee satisfaction plays an important role to boost the morale of the employee.
Employee satisfaction has a close relation with organizational culture as it encourages the
workforce to give their opinions and share their ideas related to their work. This is an innovative
method to know whether the employees are satisfied with their present job and the work culture
(p. 4). I think it is our culture and employee engagement surveys that reduce the risk of us
experiencing the conceptual blocks of complacency and compression. However, there is always
room for improvement.
For employee morale and employee engagement we utilize employee forums that
incorporate all the employees and, on the departmental level, we use staff meetings. Employee
forums are a set of forums run by senior leadership to inform employees of what is happening in
the organization. It is a question and answer type setting. The employee staff meetings are
similar, but on a much more personal level. Being able to voice ones opinion in a staff meeting
can make them feel engaged and empowered. According to Anshel (1992) the supervisor
relationship is enhanced by having regular staff meetings. It also can be a good place to solve
problems. He said Supervision meetings should be scheduled regularly and in advance. Both
parties should arrive at the conference with a list of issues to be addressed. If communication is
to be open and candid, supervisors have to respect the employee's right to privacy. Often,
meetings need follow-up on agreements, progress of work, and further reflection of


meeting content, decision completion, and perhaps additional information. Follow-up procedures
can be accomplished more quickly verbally than with additional paperwork. By having staff
meetings and employee forums we are able to get a broad spectrum of opinions. This reduces our
risk of conceptual blocks.
Action Plan
Using the RCA system, having staff meetings, having employee forums, and inspiring an
open culture can help minimize conceptual blocks; however, they are not ways that avoid them
all together. We still run into conceptual blocks from time to time. For this I have developed an
action plan. This action plan is designed to identify when a conceptual block is recognized and to
encourage creative thinking as an improvement. For the basis of the action plan, I will use the
what, who, when, where, how process. It looks like this:

What was the

discovered i.e.


Who has
block i.e.
myself or



When did
we discover
that this
person or I
this block?

Where did
occur? Was
it in the
setting or
on a



will we use:
Where are
illumination we in terms
of the status
, and
of each

The initial discovery of what the conceptual block is, who has developed the block, when
was it discovered, and where it was discovered is fairly simple to obtain; however, the important
aspect is what we will do about it. That is where the how section of this plan comes into use.
According to Whetton and Cameron (2002) is not an easy task. They say that researchers have


discovered that there are four stages to solving a problem creatively. They are preparation,
incubation, illumination, and verification (p. 178). The preparation stage is where one should
collect all the information. This is where one needs to find the definition of what the problem is.
They need to come up with alternatives and examine everything with an open mind. The
incubation stage involves mostly unconscious mental activity in which the mind combines
thoughts in pursuit of a solution. Conscious effort is not involved (p. 178). Third, is the
illumination stage. This is where a solution is found because the person has come up with a
creative fix and verbalizes it. Lastly, we have verification. This is where one evaluates the
creative solution relative to some standard of acceptability (p. 178). One can see that this will
take time and effort.
Another way in order to reverse assumptions, which are essentially conceptual blocks,
one must: 1) Write down the problem statement. (2) List all the assumptions that can be made
regarding the problem or situation. (3) Reverse each of the assumptions. Do not worry if they
seem to be odd or silly. (4) Use these assumption reversals to stimulate new ideas regarding the
problem or situation (Mcfadzean, 2000, p. 8).
Whetton and Cameron (2002) say there are more techniques that one can use to creatively
solve problems. For instance the improvement of problem definition. First, you can use synetics.
Synetics is the process of making something unfamiliar to you familiar and then reversing the
process to unfamiliar again. You place analogies to things. For instance William Harvey was the
first to apply the pump analogy to the heart, which led to the discovery of the bodys
circulatory system (p. 179). Second, one must elaborate on the definition. You need to come up
with a couple hypotheses that arent the original. Whetton and Cameron say you should ask


questions such as what the problems are and what will be the results? (p. 180). Lastly, you
need to reverse the definition. Turn the problem upside down, inside out, or back to front (p.
180). In other words, negotiate other ideas. Try to come up with other solutions even if they
sound ridiculous.
Problem solving is something we encounter every day of our livesespecially at work.
There are times that problem solving may become challenging due to conceptual blocks. The
four major conceptual blocks can be particularly challenging. Theres constancy, when someone
gets used to the idea of one approach and does not stray from that original approach.
Commitment, this is where people have a tendency to do what has worked for them in the past.
Compression, when one looks at a problem with a narrow focus. Lastly complacency, this is
where a person may be scared, the possibility of being insecure, mental blindness, or just plain
mental laziness (Whetton, & Cameron, 2012, p.175). These blocks can cause us to not solve
problems in a creative way. We have demonstrated some ways of overcoming this. For instance,
preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. At the end of the day, overcoming these
blocks can be challenging. It takes practice and a solid action plan. I look forward to discovering
new ways of creatively solve problems at my job and in my home life as well.




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Cognitive-Behavioral Therapies, 2nd edn. New York: Guilford Press.
Doggett, A. M. (2005). Root cause analysis: A framework for tool selection. The Quality
Management Journal, 12(4), 34-45. Retrieved from
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Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., (Prentice-Hall), pgs. 155-178