Innovation, a word that was in favor for many years, now seems to have gone out of favor. I hear many people in education recoiling when they hear the word, as though it is asking something of them that they are unwilling to give. On the other hand, creativity is a word that does not seem to have gone out of favor. I often hear the word used in casual conversation about colleagues or students. “This person is so creative.” “The students’ work demonstrates how creative they can be.” While not direct quotes, you get the picture. In contrast, I don’t hear people reference others as being innovative, at least not as much, unless you’re talking about Apple. Is this just in my imagination or is it a real phenomenon? Do the two words mean different things or are they interchangeable for expressing a characteristic of a person or organization?
One way to think about this idea is to ask the following questions. Can a person be creative without being innovative? Can a person innovate without being creative?
What does the literature say about the similarities and differences between these two ideas? Applied to a business environment, Vijay Govindarajan wrote an article in Harvard Business Review, Innovation is not Creativity. He writes:
Usually, managers equate innovation with creativity. But innovation is not creativity. Creativity is about coming up with a big idea. Innovation is about executing the idea — converting the idea into a successful business.
So for Govindarajan, the difference hinges on execution. Does this apply only in a business context? I wonder if a visual artist would agree with his definition and distinction. An artist comes up with an idea, but the idea is only in her mind or in a sketchbook until she executes on the idea expressing it in a painting, a print or a sculpture. When the artist executes her idea is she creating and innovating simultaneously? That is, the action of taking her idea into its full expression is a seamless experience of creating and innovating. Her art is her business.
Govindarajan sets up an equality to further explain his point of view. He writes:
We like to think of an organization’s capacity for innovation as creativity multiplied by execution. We use “multiplication” rather than “sum” because, if either creativity or execution has a score of zero, then the capacity for innovation is zero.
Innovation = Creativity x Execution
I = C X E (if either C or E is zero then there can be no innovation)
The artist who has a creative idea in her mind or in her sketchbook but never executes on it cannot consider her thinking to be innovative. That seems to make some sense. In the study he carried out with colleagues, he was interested in the question of why companies struggle with innovation. Is it they have a hard time coming up with ideas (creativity) or do they struggle with executing the ideas, resulting in innovation. Their research indicates that:
Companies tend to focus far more attention on improving the front end of the innovation process, the creativity. But the real leverage is in the back end (execution).
I wonder if the distinction Govindarajan draws is driven by giving credence to the profit side of the creativity/innovative duality. From a business perspective, creative expression does not provide a profit, unlike innovating on the creative idea. The execution, the innovation, is what takes the creative idea to market to generate a profit. This relegates creativity to merely the idea. Not sure an artist would agree.
I like to think of creativity as the engine for innovation. I do see innovation as synonymous with execution but it’s creativity that produces the substance upon which to innovate. What is often the case, the creative mind is at work throughout the innovation process. For that reason, I am not sure you can separate the two. They might be forever linked.
Finally, I think it’s limiting to define these two ideas from merely a business perspective, separating them by the action of execution. Looking at it from an artist’s or educator’s perspective, I think the two ideas are linked and interdependent. So we come back to the two questions: (1) can a person be creative without being innovative; or (2) can a person innovate without being creative? I’m not sure there is a definitive answer to either question. It might depend entirely on the context. However, it strikes me that because they cannot be answered definitively they are interdependent.