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Are you confusing creativity and innovation?

OK this is one of my pet peeves; the frequent confusion between creativity and innovation. As in: “we are teaching people to be innovative by showing them how to brainstorm and create new ideas.”  Sorry folks; that’s not innovation.

Let me give you an example; when two people make love they can also make a baby. It took just a couple of minutes and hey presto, we got a baby. That’s creation. But then in order for the baby to get to adulthood, you have to spend 20 years getting the baby through the myriad difficulties of growing up. That’s innovation.

Creation is quick, flashy, wham bam thank you ma’am. Innovation usually takes a long time, usually fails, and even when it doesn’t it requires persistence, determination, grit, and doggedness in the face of people who think you are being foolish pursuing a new, unproven and probably failing idea.

Bill Gates didn’t invent DOS; he bought it from another company. But it still took guts and determination over many years to get to where he got.

And he was one of the few successful ones! The vast majority of innovators fail. But in order to fail they still have to spend a lot of time and effort in a tough environment where money is always scarce and often non-existent to pursue a vision they feel is right, even if no-one else believes it.

If you are an innovator, you have got to get used to being lonely. Not many people can do that.

Yet companies persist in confusing the two, creativity and innovation. This means they also confuse the behavioral characteristics you need to be a successful innovator.

To be a successful innovator, creativity often (usually?) isn’t needed; you can buy, copy or otherwise acquire the idea as respectively Microsoft, Apple and Facebook did. The true function of an innovator is to recognize a breakthrough idea –whether or not they thought of it themselves - and then pick it up and take it to fruition.

This is why having some business acumen is a key part of being a successful innovator (see my previous blog post “Is Innovation a Form of Business Acumen?”). Innovation programs usually don’t focus on how to recognize a good idea, as distinct from thinking it up, and how to take it to fruition.

But that isn’t to deprecate the contribution of the founders of these companies; what got them through was not just insightful choice of the original idea but the gritty determination, persistence and stubbornness of their founders.

Creativity, particularly too much of it, often actually prevents innovation. That’s because there are too many ideas tripping over each other. These all get in the way of the single-minded focus you need to be able to innovate successfully over a long and difficult period.

Innovators, by contrast often appear dour, rigid and stubborn as they stick to the knitting of bringing up baby, forsaking other brilliant ideas that they know will get in the way of actually getting something to market.

Creative people are frequently intellectual jousters; innovators usually appear rigid and unbending. So observers are often attracted to creative rather than to innovative types. This reinforces the bias against innovators that in any case already exists strongly in most companies.

Most innovation programs focus on showing people how to be creative as in dreaming up a totally new idea. I don’t know of any innovation programs that focus on the hard-scrabble behavioral drivers of innovation or what constitutes choosing an existing idea that is insightful that can be brought to market. These issues are just too boring, off-putting or unattractive. Like Mom and Pop after 20 hard years of bringing up junior, they have lost their fresh young looks. Creativity has a younger and so-much more alluring face.

It’s time that innovation programs woke up to this reality. Otherwise companies and vendors are going to persist in developing and running “innovation” programs that feel good to the participants but are ineffective and sometimes even counter-productive.

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