Fast Company

Don't Confuse Creativity with Innovation

The British Government says that we are all creative -- and that education and workplace environments are at fault for not providing enough recognition or encouragement. This is an increasingly fashionable argument, But is it true?

I would argue that some people are blessed with natural gifts, while for others circumstances and training shape what they're good at. We can't all be good at everything and therefore, by definition, we're not all creative.

However, in meritocratic societies, there's a belief that deep down we're all the same -- and that we can all be good at anything if we just put our minds to it. This applies to creativity, too. Some consultants would have us believe that if companies would just adopt the right culture and if employees would just follow the right processes, the floodgates of creativity will open. In other words, all companies can be creative if they just put their budgets to it.

There are a number of problems with this belief. First, even if it's true that we can all be creative, we can't all achieve creative greatness. You can teach anyone to play the piano, but you can't teach anyone to be musical or to be a concert pianist.

Having said this, the problem inside most organizations is not coming up with more creative ideas. It's usually finding ways to find the ideas you're already got -- and filtering the good ones from the bad. I was once involved in a one-day ideation workshop for Campbell's that yielded over 450 new ideas. Now, that's a lot of ideas! But the best idea by far was an idea they'd thought of themselves a year before and done nothing with.

Secondly, there's widespread confusion between creativity (the ability to see things differently and have original ideas) and innovation (the ability to make new ideas actually happen). Or as William Coyne, senior vice president for R&D at 3M once put it: "Creativity is thinking of new and appropriate ideas whereas innovation is the successful implementation of those ideas within an organization. In other words creativity is the concept and innovation is the process."

One of the main problems with innovation is that companies fail to make this distinction. Creativity is embraced because it sounds like fun (and appears to be low cost). But if you open your mind too far, your brain will fall out. So companies embrace creativity (ideas) and hope that innovation (action) will happen by osmosis.

This is where it really starts to fall apart. Some companies seem to be incapable of implementing anything new -- or if they do it's usually taken so long that the opportunity has passed them by or the idea has been diluted so far it's invisible.

For example, companies like Unilever have known about the fresh pasta opportunity for ages but have done almost nothing about it. The development of Mars ice cream is another well-known example of a great idea being put on ice for years.

The main enemy of ideas is not risk but inertia.

Companies also think they can be great at creativity and innovation when generally they're either good at one or the other. The trick is to know which you're good at and then to go outside for the other. However, doing this involves a level of self-knowledge and confidence that many companies lack.

The good news is that even if a company is hopeless at coming up with new ideas, they can employ all sorts of people for almost no money to do it for them -- which probably says something about the value of ideas without implementation.

Alternatively, you can employ a consultant to put a process in place to help you generate and capture more ideas yourself. This will probably work quite well if what you're after is a constant flow of incremental innovations (continuous improvements to existing products and services). However, if you want to change the world, you're probably better off looking somewhere else. Rules are precisely what paradigm shifters break.

Real originality has never emerged from a formula -- it generally comes from small companies, inventors, entrepreneurs, and mavericks working in garages and garden sheds. What can you do if you're seeking this sort of radical innovation?

Maybe the trick is not to try and act like a startup by imitating their "processes" (which most of them don't have), but simply to seek out their ideas and reapply them to your own situation. Procter and Gamble call this "find and re-apply." Unilever calls it "creative swiping." I'd call it innovation transfer.

Better still, rather than stealing their ideas, simply buy them (license an idea or just buy the company). The one thing the small ideas guys usually don't have is precisely what the big guys are so good at: the skills to turn a new idea into an innovation. Corporations have the experience to get new ideas into market. They also have the knowledge to scale them up if they're successful, as well as the legal resources to protect them. Don't always think that you can do everything yourself.

According to James Andrew and Harold Sirkin at the Boston Consulting Group, there are three approaches to innovation: the integrator approach, the orchestrator approach and the licensor approach. Again the trick is to know which you're best at and work out what suits the specific situation or market.

Most big companies try and control everything (the integrator approach), but this takes time and money. So much time and money in fact that urgency and focus have a tendency to disappear. However, this approach can suit big companies in established markets where a core skill or brand that can be leveraged.

The second approach is to join forces with other companies to implement an idea (the orchestrator approach). This reduces the risk (and the returns), but it's a smart move when you're dealing with an idea that's outside your comfort zone such as a new technology or new distribution channel.

The final approach (the licensor model) is to simply sell your idea to someone else. This suits ideas with a strong intellectual property component where you're too busy (or you lack the necessary skills and brand credibility) to implement it yourself.

So, to sum up, don't confuse creativity with innovation. Identify what you're good at and stick to it. Most individuals and organizations are not great at everything, and it's a sign of strength to get some help or cooperate in the area where you're weakest.

Here are a few tips and suggestions to increase your level of creativity and innovation.

  • Work out what your core skill or offer is and innovate around that area.
  • Don't look for new ideas until you're exhausted your supply of old (existing) ideas.
  • If you're having trouble sorting your ideas use an idea matrix.
  • If an idea's great but just doesn't fit, don't waste it -- try selling it to another company.
  • People and markets naturally reject new ideas so think about paths of least resistance.

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