Creativity vs. Innovation


A few months back I volunteered for a team tasked with improving creativity and innovation in my organization. I came up with a half a dozen ideas which I put up for discussion. I had fun creating these ideas and filling in some of the details on why I thought they’d work well for our organization. After I broke the ice several other members sent out ideas or articles about the subject matter.

One person sent the summary of a class she had taken. This summary bugged me. It was all about resources, outcomes, detailed plans, etc. Nearly every sentence mentioned metrics. If you can’t count it, it doesn’t exist.

In my mind metrics is the antithesis of creativity. How do you count a sculpture or a symphony? How do you put a metric on a painting, a play or a poem? It reminds me of the scene from “Dead Poets Society” where Robin Williams’ character instructs his pupils to rip the introduction out of their poetry books.

I then looked at the summary again. The class was about innovation, not creativity.

So, what is the difference between creativity and innovation? I thought I knew, but after seeing this class summary I decided to check what Google had to say about the subject.

After reading quite a few articles I have found the answer to be “it depends.”

If the author is in business, for instance an article from The Wall Street Journal, you get a very sharp divide between the two. Creativity, from the business point of view, is an inward exploration of ideas, the more novel the better. Creativity alone, by this definition, is worthless, something done by dreamers, not achievers. Innovation is coming up with a new way to do something, a change to improve the business. It’s something that can be structured and measured. Grudgingly these business types admit that it takes that beatnik cousin, creativity, to make the most of innovation, but it is the practical side that counts. They are looking for innovation and use creativity as one of the tools to achieve it.

There are others, though harder to find on line, that place the emphasis on the “create” side of creativity and see innovation as “just” coming up with the “new” for newness’ sake. In this case it is creativity which is credited with the actual making and innovation is only a way of saying what has been created is something different.

After all of my reading and studying the issue I have come up with my own set of definitions.

Creativity is typically an inner process used to make something. I say “inner” even if the creative person is using outer resources, like playing a guitar. Using creativity goes beyond simple assembly, the rote or using a recipe. It often means added something of the creator, allowing a chef or an actor to follow a script or recipe and still be considered creative.

Innovation is a descriptor of the outcome of the creative process. It implies a change to the status quo. It isn’t just a one-off something new, but a change in how things are done or perceived.

For example, a potter may use the creative process to throw a new pot. If she employed a new method or created a new form then she innovated.

Let’s say I write a program that counts beans in a more user friendly way. I have used creativity to make it. If I changed the underlying technology and created a new standard, then I innovated.

So how do metrics fit into all of this?

When we talk about metrics and measurables we are not talking about creativity or innovation themselves but that “something” that was created, the end product. For instance, if you want to apply the creative process to come up with an innovative way to run your business then you will of necessity need the end product to have metrics. The potter I mentioned above doesn’t need any measurables for her new form.

Each thing you create and each way you innovate has its own set of criteria. With a painting you might look at form, color, technique, esthetics, etc. With a new marketing strategy you need to look at the resources needed, the outcome and ways to measure that outcome. You need metrics.

So that’s it. Creativity is the process of making something new and original while innovation is making something that changes the status quo. Metrics only enters if the outcome is something that needs to be measured, such as a business process.

The team I’m working with is tasked with coming up with new business processes. We need to keep track of resources. We need to keep our eye on the end results. We need detailed plans. And yes, we need to have metrics.

Quick note – The people in my organization said they felt they were not being rewarded for creativity and innovation. This was discovered in a survey. You could say our task was not so much to find a way to increase innovation to help our work process but to increase our employees’ moral. Of course the reason to raise moral is help them achieve more. So in the long run it really is to “raise the bottom line”.

8 thoughts on “Creativity vs. Innovation

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  3. lifeconfusions

    Well this was a perspective I never got to see before. I love how you put it all in this post, keeping it interesting with examples and stories.
    Hope your project went out well :)


    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks Zee! I always pretty much used the two words in the same way so when saw how different people used them it made me step back and look at the terms. As far as the project goes, this week we will put together the final proposals for management. From my point of view it went very well – two of the three proposals are ideas I brought forward….


  4. James Pailly

    I like to believe that if you give your employees enough freedom to be creative, the metrics will take care of themselves. This seems to be the philosophy at Valve, a video game company which sort of lets their employees do whatever and somehow ends up producing wildly successful games. I don’t know if that philosophy would work for every company, but it is exciting seeing the success they’ve had over the last few years.


    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I think with the right mix of people and product that could work. I would think that often one part of a company could be totally creative, i.e., making an exciting new game, while there might need to be something on the other side, such as marketing that game where you need to know if your strategy is actually getting more bank for the buck than another strategy. I’ve always been more on the creative side of the house and have resisted metrics, so I don’t know how they’re always used.



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