It’s innovation month here at Mindjet, and to kick things off, we’d like to clear the air about the complicated relationship, and often misappropriated swapping, of the terms creativity and innovation. These two words are the fraternal twins of today’s competitive business market: born out of the same place, certainly related, but nonetheless divided in purpose and application.

Most importantly, they differ in design; while creativity revolves around the mind’s ability to unleash possibilities, innovation is an act of disruption that brings change to established systems. Companies that make and understand that distinction are able to build strategies that support and measure both, rather than force an atmosphere where creativity is stifled by metrics and innovation is stilted by a lack of real-world value.

Which Came First, the Idea or the…

“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,” said the late Theodore Levitt, former professor and editor at the Harvard Business Review. Innovators are people of action, and by viewing the world (or their market) as a landscape rife with opportunities for improvement, are gifted at discovering solutions to unknown problems.

When companies confuse innovation with creativity, they’re often making the mistake of pegging innovators as people who leave the party after the brainstorm. Without solid ways to nurture, assess, and measure solutions, they misidentify the problem as a weak idea rather than what it really is: a disjointed process lacking the framework to turn ideas into investments. Enter “design thinking,” which Fast Company eloquently describes as a “protocol for solving problems and discovering new opportunities…a most powerful tool [that] when used effectively, can be the foundation for driving a brand or business forward.” It includes three primary stages, and it’s important to think of them like a Venn diagram — not chronological, but coinciding.

  1. Inspiration. This is the stage where it’s totally fine to throw around the word creativity. In fact, if you’re not, get to it. At this point, problems are identified so that there’s motivation to start considering solutions by pushing your team to think differently.
  2. Ideation. This is an arena for gestation, mulling, chewing, brainstorming, whatever you want to call it. Possibilities are shaped into ideas and outcomes, and start to solidify. This is where even self-identified creatives will shine.
  3. Implementation. Concrete ideas are tied to objectives, and processes for putting them into action and measuring their success are laid out. True innovators love this part. During implementation, all of the stakeholders should be at minimum aware of what’s being tested and at best involved with making things happen.

Putting Creativity to Work

The thing about creativity that makes it so incredible, and valuable, is that it’s sort of unhinged. It’s indefinable and nebulous, doesn’t follow rules and isn’t really something you can force. Even if you can push yourself into finding your creative boiling point, so to speak, there are certain situations and people that just aren’t conducive to the more liberal side of ingenuity. Because of that, businesses should focus less on fostering creativity and more on harnessing it and putting it to work.

Don’t panic — there’s always value in unleashing genius, but creativity happens anyway, and passionate people with ideas and unique perspectives will voice them if you simply give them a platform to do so. By utilizing the aforementioned design thinking tactics, companies can actually measure the growth and staying power of an idea long after it’s been suggested, and use that knowledge to cultivate innovation into something tangible and applicable.

In the end, it’s about filtering market needs through an imagination funnel, developing viable and sustainable resolutions, and doing it strategically so that failures and successes alike can be worthwhile. It’s vital that today’s companies start thinking about creativity as fuel for the process of innovation. I really like how Drew Marshall of Primed Associates put it: “Creativity is the price of admission, but it’s innovation that pays the bills.”