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Defining Innovation and Creativity

Acxiom Last Updated March 20th, 2017
Defining Innovation and Creativity

My previous post about innovation was about the personality types needed to make up a team with a high likelihood of succeeding at innovation. But that begs the question: what is innovation? What do we mean when we say a team or organization is innovative? We speak about individuals being innovative, but we are just as likely to say they are creative and intend the same meaning. We tend to do the same for teams, although less so. And for organizations it is rare to talk about a “creative organization” vs. an innovation one.

So are creativity and innovation the same thing? And if not, how are they different? What does that mean for how we approach building an innovative organization?

Researchers in the area of innovation and creativity (two different, but highly interrelated fields of study, which in itself is an indicator of the consensus view) tend to define creativity as the muse in the individual or team – the fount from which ideas and concepts emerge, often in a haphazard, unpredictable fashion.1 Three concepts are very commonly associated with creativity: imagination, problem solving, and struggle. Associated with imagination are words like unconventional, spontaneity, intuition, giftedness. Problem solving includes concepts like intellect, ability and organization. And struggle is associated with the concept that creativity is hard – ideas have to be wrung from one’s brain through a process of conscious and unconscious struggle. It has also become associated with the concept of the “troubled artist” who is brilliant but whose creative inspiration comes substantially from the struggles with their own internal discomfort and emotional pain. As an aside, this latter association/myth has done a great disservice to individual creativity over hundreds of years.

It is easy to associate creativity with an individual – the word associations themselves go with people. So individuals and teams can be creative. But it is harder to use the word with organizations. Organizations are made up of people, but we recognize that to talk about an organization beyond a certain size being creative as compared to its members doesn’t match the way we view creativity. Creativity is highly personal; organizations beyond a certain size conceptually are impersonal. One way to combine these concepts that seems to jibe with common conceptions is to say that an innovative organization is made up of creative individuals.

Innovation, on the other hand, is often defined in the literature as implementation of ideas generated during the creative process. That is, creativity is a precursor for innovation since creativity is what generates ideas that are innovated upon.2 That would suggest a linear relationship. But the literature also speaks to a virtuous cycle between the two that would seem obvious to most people: the implementation of an initial creative concept (the innovation) also sparks a new round of creativity that leads to other innovations.

My guess is that if I asked most of you reading this whether these definitions reflect your notions of the two concepts, you would probably say yes.

However, I am not so sure. In fact, I am going to argue that the relationship between innovation and creativity is not linear or cyclical but rather more complex. Innovation is, in fact, implicit in creativity. It is an emergent property of creativity, much as consciousness is an emergent property of our brain’s electrical activity. Asking where the brain’s electrical activity ends and consciousness begins is an impossible question to answer. The same can be said for creativity and innovation.

What this means for an organization trying to spur innovation is that the first focus should be on creating an environment where individual creativity can flourish. New ideas and organizing principals for the organization will emerge from that creative cauldron which can then be turned into innovations that allow the company to serve their customers better.

I will talk about what is needed to create an environment where creativity flourishes in my next post. But I do want to deal with one issue here before I leave off. Managers – my own included – always worry about creativity gone wild – that you focus on innovation because it is creativity with a purpose. Rampant creativity is in many ways frightening because it is a powerful force that once unleashed is hard to direct and organize. So most companies focus on stimulating innovation because it is, as we noted above, creativity directed at a goal.

That is a conceptual mistake in my mind. Moreover, it conceptually infantilizes a workforce. The first part of the mistake is that an organization’s innovation must be directed at some agreed-to goal. That may be well-and-good for incremental innovations. But incremental innovation alone will not suffice to keep a company growing and healthy in a turbulent economy where discontinuous technical change is now endemic in any given marketplace. Companies always need to encourage some amount of radical innovation which, by definition, is outside the normal processes and agreed-to mission. That undirected creativity is what ultimately identifies “crazy new ideas” that become the basis for the next billion-dollar opportunity. A large organization to thrive in today’s marketplace must therefore tolerate some amount of “creative anarchy” where individuals operate in an open marketplace for ideas that managers can’t always see, can’t control, and will absolutely feel uncomfortable with.

But how do I know, you may ask, that people won’t go running off in a direction and create the next great hula hoop when we have a strategy of focusing on building ball bearings? That question underlies the second issue. It assumes your workforce “doesn’t get it.” That they are children who somehow don’t understand that this is a grown up game and people’s livelihoods are at stake. I don’t find this to be true. If for no other reason than “necessity is the mother of invention.” Creativity is stimulated by the problems facing us. Employees know who puts food on their table. Most understand that they are paid to bring their creativity to bear on problems related to work when at work, and so the problems they get at work stimulate what they get excited about, passionate about, and ultimate apply their creativity to. Creativity stimulates invention. Invention is an individual activity. Innovation is an organizational activity that evolves from all the inventions that emerge from the somewhat chaotic creative, bubbling cauldron of ideas and conversations between employees.

If an organization fails at creating this community-driven marketplace for ideas and invention then it may still find it achieves some limited degree of incremental innovation. But I will argue that such a company will never be a truly innovative organization, it will fail to adapt quickly enough to the continual and ultimately discontinuous changes in its marketplace, and it is at high risk of ultimately failing in its mission.

1. “Innovation and Creativity in Organizations: A State-of-the-Science Review, Prospective Commentary, and Guiding Framework.” Neil Anderson, Christina Potacnik, and Jing Zhou. (United Kingdom, Brunel University, 2012)

2. “The Fuzzy Front-End of New Product Development for Discontinuous Innovations: A Theoretical Model.” Susan Reid and Ulrike de Brentani (Montreal: John Molson School of Business, Concordia University, 2000)