7 Feb 2023

Inspiring creativity and avoiding the 'one hit wonder' curse

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 7 February 2023

One great idea can be a curse if we don't see creativity as a process that requires commitment, says creativity expert Markus Baer.

With that view, we can nurture both our own creative thinking and that of other people, he tells Jesse Mulligan.

woman writing on post-it notes taped to a window

Photo: magnet.me / Unsplash

Markus Baer is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Washington University. 

A person's first experience of artistic success is usually preceded by many unseen failures, Professor Baer says.

Yet being rewarded for creative work often changes we view ourselves, in unhelpful ways.

“People take themselves more seriously and they see themselves as a creative producer. You change your self-image and when that image becomes public because you win an award, you become more protective of it.”

One way to protect an over-inflated view of your own creative ability is to bow out of producing anything else.

“This is partly driven by the fact that people outsource some control over their creativity to others. They take themselves too seriously, and they take pleasing others too seriously."

We can't control how our creative work will be received, we can only nurture our own process of making it, Baer says.

“The focus should be on the process because we can control that.

“In the absence of that process, [people who've had a big success] don't know what to do, and the chance of failure is high, so they simply stop.”

Controversial American film director Woody Allen is a great example of someone committed to their own creative process, he says.

“Regardless of what you think of his work, he used to be very religious in producing one movie a year.

“And he was the first to say that a lot of the movies are not very good and it's hard to predict which one will be a success. However, what can be predicted is the continuous engagement.”

So how can we inspire more creativity in our own workplaces? 

Baer is not a fan of 'blue sky' brainstorming sessions where people are encouraged to imagine there are no limits.

“People have trouble with too many choices. So if I say 'blue sky initiatives' you can do anything you like. I essentially provide you with a blank page, a canvas on which you can write ... But there's really no direction given, and people struggle with that, especially people who don't enjoy that level of freedom and autonomy in their daily work.”

Markus Baer

Markus Baer Photo: supplied

Guidance is the key to good ideas, he says.

“If I give you a starting point or provide some parameters around which to develop your solutions, you're more likely to start and you're more likely to persist and progress and people enjoy that.”

Often a brainstorming session is considered over when someone declares that they’ve landed on a great idea, Baer says.

“The idea is more likely to be mundane or not bad, but it's not going to be necessarily great. But people will stop the process because they think they won't be able to come up with another [worthwhile idea].”

A collaborative idea-generating process can be assisted by exercises from improv theatre, such as 'Yes, and...'.

"When someone is struggling, for example, in articulating an idea, right, or other people are really picking on it, it's about assisting that person, coming to their rescue.

“Not because you believe the idea is valuable, necessarily, but you believe in the value of the process, of the norm to help each other. Because on occasion, someone who is quiet or who may not be able to articulate his or her idea, they need that assistance.”

To protect creative thinking, we need mutual support for other people's ideas to become the norm, he says.

“If you want people to take risks - and that is important in unearthing good ideas - you need those social norms that protect that activity that allow people to do that more, having each other's back is invaluable.”


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