What’s Stopping You?

Despite our intelligence and immense creative potential, human beings are still very good at pointing out the things that make us suspicious because they are seemingly impossible.

“That won’t work,” is a standard response to a new idea, and anyone who considers themselves to be innovative will probably bristle and as a result, dive into figuring out how to doctor up the idea and make it work. This is a noble approach, one we at Knowinnovation would appreciate more than acquiescing to the can’t-be-done mentality. But there might be a better approach.


Before you can find out how to make something work, you need to find out what’s in the way, what’s keeping it from working. This exploration can unlock the puzzle of resistance by getting at a root problem, or uncovering an aspect of the problem not thoroughly considered before. This will move your thinking from the problem as presented to the problem as understood.

We have a tool for this, it’s called Webbing. You create a web of connected questions that helps to articulate (and visualize) all the related obstacles that make up the resistance. Based on and borrowed from S.I. Hayakawa‘s theory of the Ladder of Abstraction, this tool allows you to move from the abstract to the specific by asking the simple question, “what’s stopping you?”

As with a lot of the creativity tools we use, you don’t ask the question just once and stop there. It works best if you ask again and again, and make a long list of all the things that appear to be in your way.

Let’s look at an example. What if you want to get the faculty in your department to make some changes in the way they teach. A first instinct might be to think about all the things you can do to help them learn a new curriculum, or how to inspire them to change their course methodology. This is a perfectly good approach, and might yield some interesting and useful ideas.


But first, it’s worth exploring the problem a bit more before you start generating ideas. Ask what’s stopping you, or the faculty, from changing the way they teach? You’ll get at some of the obstacles: it takes time to re-think their teaching strategy and everybody’s short on that, it’s hard for people to change their habits, there’s not enough guidance on how to change, people don’t understand why it’s important or necessary. The list can go on.

The next step is to look at these obstacles and to burrow down another level. What’s the underlying resistance? So okay, what’s stopping you from helping the faculty change their habits? There may be several answers. The older teachers don’t want to change or don’t think they need to. The younger faculty want to get tenured before they veer off the traditional teaching path. The students themselves are resisting the change from the status quo.

Then pick one of those obstacles and continue. What’s stopping you from getting the students support? And so on.

You can imagine how this web of questions can unpack the overall challenge. And at some point, you’ll come upon a specific sub-problem – or several of them – that you can address. The ideas that result from asking that question might unlock the larger problem or at least send some ripples up that change the landscape around it. For instance, ideas that would inspire the students to demand a change from the faculty. That’s a different way of looking at it, and might create the step change you desire.


The other side of Webbing is to ask questions that take you up the ladder, to concepts and questions more abstract by asking the question “Why?” or “Why is this important?” And for each answer you get, to ask again why? and continue to help understand your problem or challenge in a more conceptual way.

Ask why is it important to change the way we teach? So our curriculum can be more relevant. So our students can be better prepared for a job market that’s very different than from when the current methodology was designed. So we can better use the technology that’s available now. And so forth. Moving up the web helps creates a list of broader challenges, also a good double check to make sure that you’re working on problems that are aligned with your larger goals and objectives.

These two questions broaden or narrow the level of abstraction. The why helps you to track the strategic aspect, what’s the meaning or purpose, and the what’s stopping you delves into the tactical, the nuts and bolts of getting it done.

So the next time somebody smirks at your idea, or jumps too quickly to dismiss its viability, don’t get frustrated or defensive. Just start asking questions, relentlessly, to get to the root of it. Once you find out what’s really stopping you, can you can put a stop to it, and get started.


Know Further:

More on Hayakawa and the Ladder of Abstraction. How it relates to CPS. Slightly cheezy but informative video about the Ladder of Abstraction and problem solving. And apropos of the image above, which came first, the chicken or the egg?