Invention vs innovation...and where creativity fits in

AUGUST 24, 2020|INblog, business, technology|BYmacall manor

If you’ve followed along on our innovation journey, you already know that invention and innovation are cousins, not identical twins. Innovation is a byproduct of invention, and creativity is the lifeblood of both.

Put plainly, innovation improves invention. 

Though it seems simple enough, this can get a bit hairy. When you think of the word “invention” (spoiler, cringey pun coming), a lightbulb might turn on in your head—and for good reason. But don’t forget, Edison’s patented lightbulb of 1879 was actually the result of myriad innovations to earlier British inventors’ creation of the arc lamp beginning in 1803. Various groups of scientists played with, tweaked, and thought about these improvements for over 40 years before Thomas Edison’s team honed the specific innovations that became iconic. So is the lightbulb still an invention? The invention of a few, and innovation of many, perhaps. 

One “invention” can also have thousands of innovative applications in unrelated fields. Advanced computer systems serve as state-of-the-art innovations to vehicles. Innovative in-space manufacturing practices are (quite literally) removing overhead for companies that create satellite parts. And don’t get me started on innovative uses for the invention of the 3D printer.

We’ve said it before: nailing down a one-size-fits-all innovation model is tricky. Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, is a longtime pursuer of creativity and innovation secrets. As she sees it, “innovation is built on creative ideas as the basic elements.” If creativity forms the building blocks, we had best take a closer look. 

Related: Three Dynamic Models of Innovation

Creativity

Some people more radically conceptualize creativity as a mystical gift drawn from some invisible fountain, endowed only to the true artist. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield describes creativity in the poet and artist William Blake, calling him “one of those half-mad avatars who appear in flesh from time to time—savants capable of ascending for brief periods to loftier planes and returning to share the wonders they have seen.” 

I’m about to tell you the secret to this level of creativity. 

Just kidding. 

But it’s important to remember that some of the best creativity often springs from the simple need to solve a problem. Translation: analytically minded problem solvers *cough, innovators* have a lot to work with. Creative problem solvers are the engine of innovation. 

In Amabile’s study on this topic, she notes three key conceptualizations of creativity: person, process, and product.  

Person

What defines the creative individual? Here are some definitions to consider.

  • A “constellation of personality and intellectual traits shown by individuals who, when given a measure of free rein, spend significant amounts of time engaged in the creative process.” (Findlay and Lumsden). 

  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Titan of creativity and innovation studies), has attributed a certain “childishness” and “wisdom” to creative individuals.  

Note: Interestingly enough, Teresa Amabile’s extensive research uncovered that some characteristics of problem solvers actually overlapped with those found by creativity researchers. These were:

  • “Persistence, curiosity, energy, and intellectual honesty.”
Process

Here are a couple of ways to understand the creative process.

  • “Creativity is the emergence in action of a novel relational product, growing out of the uniqueness of the individual on the one hand, and the materials, events, people, or circumstances of his life on the other” (Rogers 1954).

  • Steve Jobs famously said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

Product

In her work on the subject, Amabile posits that investigating creativity through the lens of the product is the most straightforward. In doing so, we can also examine the environmental and organizational influences on creative and innovative processes.

Her study defines ‘product’ in the following context.

  •  “Novelty that is useful”

How creativity fits in:

  • “Creativity [contributes to] the production of novel and useful ideas by an individual or small group of individuals working together.”

Organizing people and process to create innovative products

“Organizational innovation is the successful implementation of creative ideas within an organization.”

The big question seems to be, how do you strategically organize creative individuals (and their time) in a manner conducive to consistently innovative practices? Many argue for a shift in an organization’s paradigms, or developing strong internal models of innovation. Both are valid pursuits, but Amabile’s A Model of Creativity and Organizations yielded some interesting finds on the impact of motive

She conducted an intensive study which revealed that when lightly groomed with a biased questionnaire meant to influence subjects’ perception of why they were doing what they were doing, those who considered extrinsic motivators to their work showed a distinct decrease in creativity––below the control group, and considerably below the group that premeditated on intrinsic motivators.

She notes, most importantly, that if these effects were so easily measurable in a brief study, they would be large in the demanding environment of the corporate economy. 

To water the perfect garden for creativity and foster a system that yields consistently innovative ideas and products, it seems creatively inclined individuals need the opportunity to work together for organizations that already have models of innovation in place. But beyond that, they need to feel connected to elements of the creative process that are most personal to them, and contribute to a larger vision that they find intrinsically motivating.  

Related: Innovation Defined

“Individual creativity and organizational innovation are closely interlocked systems.”

It’s no coincidence that there is overlap in some definitions of innovation and creativity. As it turns out, an individual’s creativity is the most important element of organizational innovation. Although alone, it is not enough. Environmental factors of the organization can be the most impactful “determinants” of the individual’s creativity at any point in time.

Again, some of the most fascinating creativity seems to lie on the frontlines of the world’s most pressing problems. The need for light brought inventors and innovators together in creative groups that generated one of the most brilliant products in history.  Although today the demand for innovation in clean energy, medicine, and corporate and environmental sustainability seems dire, it still feels like almost anything is possible.  

What are some of your favorite new innovations? Let’s talk about this more.

macall.manor@sfappworks.com, andrew@sfappworks.com