Creativity vs. Innovation: What’s the Difference? What’s the Innovative Process?

There are many articles already written on the difference between creativity and innovation. In researching the topic for myself, I was interested to find that I agreed only with a small handful of writers (at least, of those I was able to find).

On one hand, I’m not surprised, since there is obviously significant crossover between the two concepts. But what did surprise me were the definitions themselves. Creative/creativity was often defined as something new or original; and innovative/innovation as something implemented.

In other words, new seemed to be the differentiating factor on the “creative” side, and implementation appeared to be the differentiating factor on the “innovative” side – the logic being that an idea can be creative, but that it can’t be an innovation until it’s implemented; and also that creative = new/original, which I do not believe to be true.

While I do agree that an innovation needs to be realized to be usable (to be more than simply an idea or concept), I don’t think this distinction gets to the core of the real difference between creativity and innovation.

For example, an idea can be innovative or creative, or both, but the fact that an idea itself can be innovative suggests that the implementation factor is more of a desired outcome (what individuals and businesses want and may need to happen to make the process worthwhile), but not the defining difference.

To the same point, I’ve heard and seen countless ideas and things that are creative, but not innovative (and not original), and it wasn’t the fact that they were not yet implemented that made the difference.

In the very first article in the creativity and innovation at work series, I shared a definition of innovation (conceived by Jeff Dance of the digital marketing firm Fresh Consulting) that really works for me on all levels, because it points to what I think is actually the core difference between creativity and innovation, and it also leaves the implementation factor out altogether:

Innovation is a new idea, thing, product, process, etc., that creates/adds value.

In the same article, I also wrote that I felt that knowing and understanding the definition of innovation is the critical first step in actually innovating, because the definition holds the clues to “how-to.”

So, using Fresh Consulting’s definition of innovation the starting point, what are the key components for innovating? What is the Innovative Process?

Before we get to that, though, a somewhat brief note about creativity:

By definition, the Innovative Process includes the Creative Process – in fact, the Innovative Process is a creative process. However, I feel innovation must go beyond the Creative Process because, per the definition of innovation we’re using, an innovation includes attributes that are not absolutely necessary for creativity alone.

In explanation, I define “creative” as a thing, person, process, product, etc., that stands apart from others in one of two ways (with “new” and “creates value” not part of either):

  1. By standing apart from the norm (not necessarily by being new) and/or —
  2. By offering a different perspective (not necessarily an innovative perspective)

And whether that different perspective creates value or not, is a bit irrelevant, I think, in terms of creativity.

It might create value, and if it does, it moves of from being purely creative to also being innovative.

So, with both the above thinking around creativity in mind and the definition of innovation from Fresh Consulting, here’s my take on the Innovative Process and why it is different from the Creative Process:

Innovative Process = Creative Process + Strategic Thinking + Practical Application

Breaking it down:

Creative Process

Essential to all creating (including innovation). It is how ideas come to be. It’s phases, as outlined in the Idea Tango series on Creative Process are: Sponge Work (absorbing, noticing, collecting fodder, but not judging); In the Flow (making connections, begin to judge what’s working, what’s not); Inspiration & Insight (getting the big idea, the ah-ha moment and the point in the process at which the creator makes a choice about what will be created); Making it Real (completing the idea, moving from concept to tangible outcome – and, YES!, this is implementation. But again, if we believe an idea can be creative – or innovative for that matter – than whether or not it’s produced has nothing to do with its inherent creativity).  

Strategic Thinking

Looking at the total environment and asking questions like we asked in the how-to innovate exercises What’s Broken? What’s Brilliant? and What can I Borrow? What can I Balance?. Strategic thinking sees what’s out there now, finds gaps and missing pieces, combines ideas (which all can also be part of the Creative Process), but ultimately strategic thinking serves to provide key insights as to whether or not the idea will create value or not (which is not a necessary part of the Creative Process) – and this is where the line blurs into the final component of the formula, in that strategic thinking is what lays the groundwork for discovering:

Practical Application

Will it be useful? Will it really create value – will it give us something that makes life easier, better, faster, slower, etc? Logic comes into play in a major way (implemented or not), and it’s also easy to see why practical application does not have to be part of creativity. In fact, something can be completely useless (in the hard-nosed sense) and still be quite creative.

As mentioned above, it’s true that strategic thinking and practical application, can and often do, play a part in pure creativity (i.e. strategic thinking is part of getting In the Flow and in finding Inspiration & Insight; and practical application has elements that can certainly be part of Making it Real; but the point is that while they can be part of the Creative Process, they are absolutely essential to the Innovative Process.

In short, where the Creative Process doesn’t demand a formal approach around strategy and practicality – or even require them at all – the Innovative Process does. Those pieces are necessary for real innovation exactly because of Fresh Consulting’s definition of innovation: That to be an innovation, something has to be new and it has to create value.

What are your thoughts on the differences between creativity and innovation? What is your formula for innovation? Shoot my theory down or build on it, it’s all in service of something important: The thrilling opportunity to innovate better and more easily – to take our society and planet into the future with genius and in ways yet to be imagined.  

To the work of the Age of Innovation.

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