Image by Hugh MacLeod
Hugh MacLeod recently published an interesting take on the difference between creativity and innovation:
One of the buzzwords you hear a lot in the business world these days, is “Innovation”. Yes, it’s a genuinely worthy thing to aspire to. Genuine innovation creates lots of genuine value, every young intern knows this. Which is why people like to throw it around like confetti. It’s one of those words that sound good in meetings, regardless of how serious one is about ACTUALLY innovating ANYTHING.
Here’s some friendly advice for all you Innovation-buzzword fanboys: You don’t get to be more innovative, until you make yourself more creative FIRST.
“Innovative” is an “external” word. It can be measured. It generally talks about things that have been tested properly and found to have worked in the real world.
“Creative”, however, is more of an “internal” word. It’s subjective, it’s murkier. It’s far harder to measure, it’s far harder to define. It’s an inward journey, not outward. Which is why a lot of people in business try to keep the word out of their official lexicon, preferring instead more neutral, more externally-focused language like “Value”, “Excellence”, “Quality” and yes, “Innovation”.
Creative Dreamers vs Productive Innovators?
Hugh’s put his finger on an important distinction that I haven’t seen articulated quite like this before. He’s put me in mind of Theodore Levitt’s classic definition of creativity and innovation:
Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.
In other words, it’s no use sitting around dreaming up fantastic ideas unless you’re prepared to do the hard work of making things happen. Levitt expands on this theme in an entertaining tirade in the Harvard Business Review:
‘Creativity’ is not the miraculous road to business growth and affluence that is so abundantly claimed these days… Those who extol the liberating virtues of corporate creativity… tend to confuse the getting of ideas with their implementation – that is, confuse creativity in the abstract with practical innovation.
(Theodore Levitt, ‘Creativity Is Not Enough’ (1963))
Levitt doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to creative daydreamers:
Since business is a uniquely ‘get things done’ institution, creativity without action-oriented follow-through is a uniquely barren form of individual behaviour. Actually, in a sense, it is even irresponsible. This is because: (1) The creative man who tosses out ideas and does nothing to help them get implemented is shirking any responsibility for one of the prime requisites of the business, namely, action; and (2) by avoiding follow-through, he is behaving in an organizationally intolerable – or, at best, sloppy – fashion.
So for Levitt:
Creativity = Ideas
Innovation = Ideas + Action
Levitt highlights another important distinction between creativity and innovation:
the ideas are often judged more by their novelty than by their potential usefulness, either to consumers or to the company.
Creativity = Novelty
Innovation = Novelty + Value
Levitt’s article was written over 40 years ago, but it’s still commonplace for writers to distinguish between creativity and innovation on grounds of ideas and action, novelty and value:
Often, in common parlance, the words creativity and innovation are used interchangeably. They shouldn’t be, because while creativity implies coming up with ideas, ‘it’s the bringing ideas to life’ . . . that makes innovation the distinct undertaking it is.
(Tony Davila, Marc J. Epstein and Robert Shelton, Making Innovation Work: How to Manage It, Measure It, and Profit from It (2006))
Creativity: the generation of new ideas by approaching problems or existing practices in innovative or imaginative ways… Creativity is linked to innovation, which is the process of taking a new idea and turning it into a market offering.
(Business: The Ultimate Resource, Bloomsbury, 2002)
The distinction is alive and well on the internet, in cut-and-dried definitions of creativity vs innovation and Innovation vs Creativity, and among bloggers keen to confront us with ‘the ugly truth’ that creativity is merely ‘a way of thinking’ and therefore ‘a subset of innovation’.
The message is clear: creativity is all very well for intellectuals and bohemians sitting around on bean bags, but it takes an innovator to get things done.
It’s hard to argue with the logic. No reasonable person would claim ideas are more valuable than action – but then creative people are notoriously unreasonable.
Or are they?
Creativity Strikes Back
Most of the examples I’ve quoted so far are from business authors. But if we look at the psychological literature on creativity and innovation, it’s like going through the looking glass. (I’ve added bold to the following quotations to highlight the key terms.)
Psychological definitions of creativity generally contain two separate components. In the first place, creativity requires that we make or think something new, or a new combination of existing elements. This is the element of novelty or innovation… However, mere novelty is not enough. To be creative, the idea must also be useful, or valuable.
(Chris Bilton, Management and Creativity (2006))
Bilton is not just talking about ideas – note that he refers to ‘making’ as well as ‘thinking’. So on this side of the looking glass, the terms of the equations are reversed:
Innovation = ‘mere novelty’
Creativity = Novelty + Value
Creativity = Ideas + Action
He’s not alone in this view of creativity:
Like most creativity researchers, we rely on a product definition: A product is viewed as creative to the extent that it is both a novel response and an appropriate, useful, correct, or valuable response to an open-ended task.7
A ‘product definition’ means that a mere idea is not enough to qualify as creativity – action is needed to transform the idea into a product.
Sound familiar? Here are a few more definitions of creativity:
the concept of creativity is value-laden. A creative idea must be useful, illuminating or challenging in some way.’
(Margaret Boden, The Creative Mind (1990))
In business, originality isn’t enough. To be creative, an idea must also be appropriate – useful and actionable. It must somehow influence the way business gets done – by improving a product, for instance, or by opening up a new way to approach a process.
(Teresa Amabile, ‘How to Kill Creativity’ (1998))
The study of creativity has generated a wide-ranging variety of definitions… However, most contemporary researchers and theorists have adopted a definition that focuses on the product or outcome of a product development process… in the current study we defined creative performance as products, ideas or procedures that satisfy two conditions: (1) they are novel or original and (2) they are potentially relevant for, or useful to, an organization.
(G. R. Oldham and A. Cummings, ‘Employee creativity: Personal and contextual factors at work’ (1996))
I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get a sense of déjà vu.
Chris Bilton confronts the discrepancy between the two worlds head on:
In the management literature on innovation, some authors reverse my distinction between ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’, with creativity equating to ‘mere novelty’ and innovation encompassing the dualism of novelty and fitness for purpose
Semantic differences aside, it should be noted that the argument – that two elements (novelty and fitness) are necessary to qualify as innovation / creativity is fundamentally the same.
(Management and Creativity)
So when you look carefully at the definitions, there is in fact no essential difference between creativity and innovation. Not for anyone who takes either of them seriously. Everyone basically agrees on the importance of ideas + action and novelty + value. From this angle, arguments about the superiority of innovation to creativity start to look like macho one-upmanship.
And this is why I like Hugh’s post so much – logically, the two concepts may be the same, but emotionally they have very different connotations:
‘Innovation’ has the feel of an external process, which corporate types are comfortable measuring and tabulating. But Hugh reminds us that you can’t have any of this without a creative fire in your belly.
Which means not being afraid to go to that messy, subjective, risky place where the difference between success and failure, praise and ridicule is balanced on a razor’s edge.
What’s the Difference between Creativity and Innovation?
What do the words ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ mean to you?
Do you think they are basically the same or are there important differences?
Are you more comfortable describing yourself as ‘creative’ or ‘innovative’?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.