The Innovation/Creativity Continuum

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Innovation is constantly in the news. Corporations spend millions of dollars fostering, cultivating and encouraging it in work environments that often seem inhospitable to deflected and unexpected thinking.

Interestingly, artists rarely use the word innovation to describe the methodology of their work. Creativity is the more common term. How are the two different?

Drew Marshall highlights the distinction:

The main difference between creativity and innovation is the focus. Creativity is about unleashing the potential of the mind to conceive new ideas. Those concepts could manifest themselves in any number of ways, but most often, they become something we can see, hear, smell, touch, or taste. However, creative ideas can also be thought experiments within one person’s mind.

Creativity is subjective, making it hard to measure, as our creative friends assert.

Innovation, on the other hand, is completely measurable. Innovation is about introducing change into relatively stable systems. It’s also concerned with the work required to make an idea viable. By identifying an unrecognized and unmet need, an organization can use innovation to apply its creative resources to design an appropriate solution and reap a return on its investment.

Organizations often chase creativity, but what they really need to pursue is innovation. Theodore Levitt puts it best: “What is often lacking is not creativity in the idea-creating sense but innovation in the action-producing sense, i.e. putting ideas to work.”

A related article by Janet Rae-Dupree in the New York Times highlights some of the occupational hazards in either zone:

It’s a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.

Andrew S. Grove, the co-founder of Intel, put it well in 2005 when he told an interviewer from Fortune, “When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.” In other words, it becomes nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself.

This so-called curse of knowledge…means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path…

In her 2006 book, “Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,” Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes bringing in outsiders whom she calls zero-gravity thinkers to keep creativity and innovation on track.

When experts have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed, she says, “it forces them to look at their world differently and, as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems…”

Here is Cynthia Barton Rabe’s advice for how to find zero-gravity thinkers: “Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field.”

That’s what I seek from my friends who are writers, musicians, inventors: They are my zero-gravity thinkers. They work in a related area but not in my specific field. They force me to look at the world differently. And of course I hope I do the same for them.

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3 comments

  1. Ann Dibble Call’s avatar

    Not arts-related at all, except with our “arts-package” children.

    A practical application of the “Innovation Killer” is the brilliant math teacher who simply cannot communicate his knowledge to students not of his or her mind-set and ability.

    Over the years, there have been, I recall, two………two math teachers for our children who, brilliant as they were, also could communicate AND innovate to get inside the minds of reluctant or really math-challenged children! They made such a difference!

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Thank you Ann for these good examples in another realm.

  2. Jennifer Thompson’s avatar

    I totally agree. We need to look at all problems with a beginners mind if we are going to be creative. When we think we KNOW something, that is exactly where we should start, and assume what we KNOW is wrong. It is only when we shift this paradigm that we can be truly creative.

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