Distinguishing Between Creativity and Innovation

The economic advisor at a fintech startup reached out to us recently, as he was new to the startup scene after spending years in a bank, and he had a few questions. As we talked, the team noticed he used the words creativity and innovation interchangeably. We finally decided to stop him and have a converstaion about the basics, as these really are different things, and both are important for for any organization that wants to grow, whether it’s a 20-person startup or a large MNC.

First, though, a disclaimer: these are OUR definitions, based on readings we have done, conversations we have had, and experiences we have experienced. If you want to define them differently, then by all means go for it. We think, though, that the concepts we have considered are the most important ones.

Creativity involves coming up with new ideas. It includes exploration and thinking and discarding and trying again. We talk about Creatives as people who come up with something that never existed before, and that is really the heart of creativity. It is about figuring out what we want to accomplish.

Innovation, on the other hand, is the follow through. It is figuring out how to take this new idea and put it into practice, to implement it, so we can achieve the effect this new idea was designed to have. Fitting a new concept into an existing reality, or adjusting reality to accept the new concept, is what makes creativity worthwhile.

Without creativity, there is nothing to innovate. Without innovation, creative ideas never see the light of day.

That’s why we are very frank about distinguishing between the two. Having only one or the other really limits you, whereas having both opens a LOT more doors.

Many people are creative, but we often find it easier to come up with new ideas than to put them into practice. You might identify a dozen small new ideas in a week. You may have implemented 2 of them so far. As for the rest, if you did not write them down when you thought of them, they may very well be gone for good, and even if you did write them down, there is no guarantee you will follow through. Big ideas may be even harder to innovate. When you really start to think about it, the task might seem overwhelming, and you end up discarding it. Another possibility, especially for very creative people, is that before they move forward on one idea they have another great one, and they shift their attention to that. (short attention spans are an occupational hazard for Creatives)

As a leader, much of your job is managing the creative and innovative aspects of your organization’s work. You need to build an environment where creativity happens naturally, but you also need to guide people toward the innovation part so that good ideas do not get lost. These require different approaches, and you need to be able to do both of them. Your employees might not be exceptional at both, but if YOU are, then you can help them turn their great ideas into a great reality.