Editor’s note: Arthur Coleman is vice president, product at research firm, Acxiom, Redwood Shores, Calif. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “Defining innovation and creativity.”
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. It is rare to talk about a creative vs. an innovative organization.
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) 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 commonly associated with creativity: imagination, problem solving and struggle. Associated with imagination are words like unconventional, spontaneity, intuition and 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 troubled artist.
It is easy to associate creativity with an individual. 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 as being creative compared to its members doesn’t match the way we view creativity. Creativity is highly personal and large organizations are conceptually 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 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. 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 whether these definitions reflect your notions of the two concepts, you would say yes.
I am going to argue that the relationship between innovation and creativity is more complex. Innovation is implicit in creativity. It is an emergent property of creativity, much as consciousness is an emergent property of our brain’s 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 better serve its customers.
Managers (my own included) worry about creativity gone wild – that you will 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 creativity directed at a goal.
That is a conceptual mistake. The first part of the mistake is that an organization’s innovation must be directed at a common goal. That may be well and good for incremental innovations. But incremental innovation is not enough to keep a company growing and healthy in a turbulent economy. Companies need to encourage some amount of radical innovation which, by definition, is outside the normal processes and agreed-to mission. That creativity is what ultimately identifies crazy new ideas that become the basis for the next billion-dollar opportunity. For a large organization to thrive in today’s marketplace it must 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 feel uncomfortable with.
But how do I know 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 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 what they 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 as it will fail to quickly adapt to changes in its marketplace and will ultimately fail its mission.
1. Anderson, Niel; Potacnik, Christina; and Zhou, Jing. “Innovation and Creativity in Organizations: A State-of-the-Science Review, Prospective Commentary and Guiding Framework.” United Kingdom, Brunel University, 2012.
2. Reid, Susan and de Brentani, Ulrike. “The Fuzzy Front-End of New Product Development for Discontinuous Innovations: A Theoretical Model.” Montreal: John Molson School of Business, Concordia University, 2000.