Posted by: Liz Massey | December 21, 2008

Don’t let the recession crush your creativity

Photo courtesy SXC.

Jeffrey Baumgartner, who owns the Belgian innovation firm, recently published a fantastic article in his biweekly Report 103 e-newsletter about threats to innovation in 2009 posed by the deepening recession.

Although Baumgartner focuses on the world of business innovation in his article, the story should be required reading for all creative folk, no matter what their media or artistic discipline, and regardless of whether they create for a living or as a hobby. He points out some subtle and not-so-subtle recessionary influences that have the potential to drastically reduce the amount of creativity going on, whether at the office or in your studio.

(Personal note: I interviewed Baumgartner for a recent article I wrote for Office Solutions recently on the 5 Traits of Creative Teams. He’s a great guy and very knowledgeable on the topic of creativity in the workplace—InnovationTools blog recently listed him among its list of 10 innovation experts to whom you should be listening .)

In the spirit of Baumgartner’s workplace-centered article, here’s my take on his list of threats to innovation as I see them playing out in the realm of creative expression.

Downsizing Destroys Collaborative Webs
For artists in solitary media, this threat might not seem so dire, but if financial pressures squeeze art-making time out of the lives of our contemporaries, where will we turn for inspiration, advice or perspective? For those in disciplines in which collaboration is inherent—think filmmaking or large musical ensembles—the destruction of networks of past, present or future collaborators can mean it’s much more difficult to produce quality work.

Reduced Trust

Baumgartner’s referring to trust between management and employees after downsizings and budget cuts here, but I think we can all attest to the fact that a lot of behavior right now, personal and organizational, is being driven by fear, and fear reduces trust. Although creative responses to the crises we face now are exactly what is needed, fear of looking stupid can play out into behavior that “plays it safe” by not trying new techniques or beginning a new creative hobby, as we may feel we cannot afford the vulnerability or awkwardness that stepping away from tried-and-true solutions entails.

Less Time to Innovate than Before

No translation from the business world needed on this point. It seems many of us have to work harder and harder to make the same amount of money, which seems to cover fewer and fewer expenses each month. Also, family and friends may have fallen on even more difficult circumstances than ours and need our help.
One of the silver linings to this point may lie in the fact that creative endeavors can be broken into amazingly small tidbits. I’ve blogged before about how to create in short blocks of time, and I’m of the belief it’s not necessarily a bad situation; it may be that the ideas that we flesh out in tiny snippets of time actually benefit from the enforced “rest periods” when we are attending to other responsibilities.

Risk Aversion
All of the above factors—collaborative networks collapsing, fear driving out trust, and time scarcity—have many artists in hunker-down mode. Markets for our work may not look promising, so why try something that lies outside what seems to be selling? If there’s little chance of getting in a show, or auditioning successfully, or being able to get off of work to play at the open mic night, why take the extra time to make our work the best it can be?

Risk Excess
Baumgartner has identified another, less commonly thought of, danger of recessionary thinking. Sometimes, out of desperation and fear, it’s possible to start trying anything, no matter how far outside the box, in the hope that the “new” thinking will by itself produce good work. He and other innovation thinkers such as Renee Hopkins Callahan emphasize the necessity of increasing failure tolerance when encouraging innovation and creating a “culture of experimentation.” These goals, when applied on a personal creative level, can provide a needed balance. Treating art-making efforts as experiments and learning to “fail fast, fail often, fail gloriously” can make it easier to try new things without feeling the compulsion to must see every creative effort, no matter how off-base it turns out to be, to completion.

Reduced Investment in Innovation Support
Artists may have an easier time detecting a problem in this area than those who are charged with business innovation—for those who make art or pursue creative endeavors on their own are immediately aware of the difference that access to resources (materials, teachers, venues for sharing and collaborating) makes to their ability to create. I’d argue that prevailing business attitudes still ignore the logistical costs of supporting sustained innovation.
It’s easy to argue that some art forms necessarily entail more technological or logistical support than others, but a personal money squeeze can take away funds for a faster laptop to edit video programs on, a photography course, or even an online writing course. These may not staunch the flow of ideas, but they can make artistic progression, if that’s what’s desired, slower and less certain.



  1. You touch on some nice points there, thanks for the post 😀

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