Creativity vs. Innovation: Yes, there is a difference.

During my workshops and speeches on creativity, I field lots of questions. None comes up more often than this fundamental one: Is there a difference between creativity and innovation? We toss both words around so frequently and in so many ways (often interchangeably), it’s understandable how their meanings blur. Knowing the vital difference between creativity and innovation will help you and your team communicate more accurately and effectively.

Think of innovation as the sequential process of 1) identifying problems, needs, or opportunities; 2) generating ideas to address selected problems, needs, or opportunities; 3) moving the best ideas to completion; and 4) generating value from those ideas. While the sequence or steps may sometimes differ, innovation always involves the generation of an idea and the shepherding of that idea into successful usage.

Creativity is the ability to make connections that result in ideas. It is a skill exercised throughout the process of innovation. We most often think of using creativity to generate a new product or service idea, or to invent a new technology, but creativity is a necessary element in every stage of the innovation process. We might use creativity to develop a new way to uncover consumer problems. Or creativity may help us scale a barrier to implementation, improve margins, speed up a process, or spur buyer interest in the end product.

So, the thumbnail answer to the question I’m asked most often: creativity is a skill and innovation is a process. That’s how they differ. The skill of creativity is applied throughout the process of innovation—in many different ways—to improve the likelihood of success. That’s how they interact. The terms are inextricably linked because creativity is critical during the innovation process—i.e., if no ideas are generated, there is nothing to implement.

Things get complicated, though, when these two terms are used as modifiers. If you come up with a really good idea, someone might call it a “really innovative idea,” or a “really creative idea.” To communicate accurately, you should only describe an idea as innovative if that idea has already proved itself and added value in some way. Calling an idea creative simply observes that the connection made was both unique and, at first, not obvious. It’s much tougher to earn the designation “innovative idea.” Another way to think of it: all innovative ideas start as creative ideas, but not all creative ideas will become innovative ideas.

Spread the word and help end the confusion: innovation is a process and creativity is a skill applied throughout the process of innovation. Once we get that sorted out, maybe someone can tell me when to use who versus whom.

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