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Innovation vs. Creativity -- What do we lose by always swinging for the fences?


It is almost impossible today to find a conference agenda in any industry without the word innovation somewhere in the title or description. As you get closer to Washington DC, the presence of the word is unavoidable. In fact, according to Google analytics, the relative popularity of the word in 2018 web searches was highest in the Washington, DC region by a wide margin. Relative to all of the searches made from the Washington, DC region, the word innovation is twice as popular in DC than in the #2 location, Massachusetts.


It is tough to find a national organization in the shadow of the Washington Monument that does not have some resources dedicated to innovation. As you would expect, each of the military services in the Pentagon have innovation centers. The National Science Foundation has an I-Corps to connect scientists and engineers to projects ready to move to commercialization. Booz-Allen Hamilton and 3M recently opened innovation centers in the capital. The innovation infection, however, has spread beyond defense, science, and industry. 


United Way Worldwide opened a Social Innovation Center in their headquarters to help nonprofits in the health and human services sector. The National Archives has an innovation hub allowing amateur archivists to help by scanning records into the digital archive. Currently, the main effort is scanning 100,000 pages of logs from US Coast Guard vessels that participated in the Vietnam War. If none of these efforts convince you of innovation saturation in the capital, consider AARP’s Hatchery, an innovation space for products designed for the growing 50+ population. When everyone from AARP to the USAF are chasing innovation, you can bet the word finds its way into just about every mission statement, grant proposal, and strategic plan in the city. Unfortunately, the ubiquitous use of innovation as a buzzword slowly drains its meaning and replaces it with fetish. More importantly, it puts the emphasis on a rare outcome at the expense of more achievable, incremental improvements that may yield more results over time.

The etymology of the word innovate traces to the 1500’s and derives from a Latin word meaning “to renew” or “to make changes in something established”. Originally, the word innovation was reserved for those inventions or practices that revolutionized the world, or at least a certain domain of it. Innovations split time and allow us to talk about the world as it existed “before” the innovation and “after”. 

Two relatable examples of innovation are the airplane and the iPod. The airplane not only changed the way people travel, but it created new ways of doing business, conducting war, contemplating space, and discovering unexplored areas of Earth. The iPod was the precursor to the iPhone and a revolution in the way the world communicates. Portable computing power and internet access opened a new class of business. The technology changed the music industry and put a camera nearly everywhere at all times. Each industry has its own innovations that transform in more localized, but powerful ways. Penicillin, the assembly line, the internet, solar panels, and Phil Swift’s Flex Tape changed human understanding of the art of the possible. Seriously, you can saw a boat in half and put it back together with Flex Tape.


Fortunately, most of the ideas and products being promoted today as “innovations” aren’t. None of us could withstand the disruption of our world being re-invented at such a breakneck pace. While improved communication allows innovation at an increased pace, the fact remains—innovation is, by definition, exceedingly rare. Innovation is a laudable pursuit requiring a cosmic convergence of ideas, personality, technology, culture, and time. Realistically, the odds are against any innovation center producing a single true innovation in one, five, or ten years. 

True innovation is the metaphorical equivalent of a simultaneous knockout punch, grand slam, and winning Iron Chef when the secret ingredient is Corn Nuts. You are ultimately more likely to improve your bottom line, achieve your strategic goals, or make a positive social impact with a steady volume of consistent, but less ambitious ideas, executed well over time. The repeated execution of applied creativity to all sorts of problems are the small victories that add up to, or open the opportunity for, the knockout punch…or the never-before-seen Corn Nut and squid polenta cake.

You cannot innovate unless you create.

In Washington, DC, Google searches for “innovation” were more than 11 times more common than searches for “creativity”. Washington DC is home to a number of smaller maker-spaces and incubators for entrepreneurs but none with the budgets allocated to national brands or government agencies. Where innovation is rooted in the idea of being “reborn”, creativity comes from Latin words meaning “to be born or to produce”. Without creativity, there is no basis for innovation. Creativity is the production of a new solution, product, or concept that works. 

Thanks to the popularity of Alex Osborne’s 1953 idea of brainstorming, many people associate creative thinking with generating mass quantities of ideas. While divergent thinking exercises are an important part of the creative problem solving process, idea generation alone is not creativity. Without producing something, an item, a process improvement, a paper, or something else tangible, there is no creativity. 

When the Wright Brothers were creating the airplane, their goal was getting airborne, not to innovate travel and warfare. When Apple was developing the iPod, Steve Jobs had a relatively modest goal--1000 songs in your pocket. He didn’t set out to revolutionize communication. By focusing on smaller, incremental feats of applied creativity, they were able to achieve more innovation than they initially believed possible.

How did the Wright Bros and Steve Jobs turn creations into innovations?


First, they had a series of great ideas combining the state of the art and a vision for what might be possible. Neither the Wright Flyer nor the iPod required a new material, a new technology, or a new discovery. The Wright Brothers used the most basic materials--muslin, wire, and spruce to build the structure of the 1903 Wright Flyer. Designers at Apple combined an existing (but unused) small hard drive, improved batteries, LCD screens, and the Firewire connection. In both cases, the inventors achieved success by making new combinations. This is the heart of creativity. Developing a staff of thinkers who make creative combinations of existing ideas may not be as sexy as a staff of futurists, but creative thinkers are the ones most likely to improve products and practices today…and are at least as likely to create something that eventually becomes an innovation. I suspect the idea of the Wright Flyer would not have done well in a Shark Tank-style innovation competition. For most of the world, flying machines were the realm of cooks and cranks. Even for those who believed heavier-than-air flying was theoretically possible, no one would have bet on 2 self-funded bicycle mechanics without college degrees. (See this earlier article to see how they achieved this feat against all odds.) How many great, incremental ideas are rejected in favor of the “next big thing?”


Second, each made an incremental improvement to an existing technology to solve a specific design problem. For the Wright Brothers, the last problem to conquer was building an engine powerful enough to get the Flyer off the ground but light enough to be practical. Their closest competitor in the race for the skies was stymied by this step. For the iPod, Steve Jobs understood the frustration users would feel if they had to scroll, one-at-a-time, through 1000 songs to get to their favorite party anthem. Taking a design idea from an alarm clock, Apple designers created the scroll wheel. These innovators solved a problem that didn’t exist before their creation took shape. What new problems will your new creation reveal? Can you solve a problem others haven’t noticed yet?


Third, they created a simple marketing strategy for their new creation.  Marketing, in its broadest context, is not only selling the device to customers, but selling the idea to gatekeepers and influencers. The Wright Brothers and Steve Jobs were masters of this skill. The first iPod commercial had very few words….57 seconds of music playing while a guy moved music files to the device ending with 3 seconds of the pitch, “iPod. 1000 songs in your pocket.” The Wright Brothers kept their invention under wraps for over two years before making their first showing to a potential customer. This was easier in a time when everyone wasn’t carrying a video camera in their pocket. If Apple’s ad agency had been writing the Wright Brother's pitch, it would have been simply “it flies.” Marketing isn’t enough to turn a bad idea good, but it is necessary for even the best ideas. Helping creative thinkers to better communicate their ideas may yield payoffs equal to that of an innovation center focusing on the next big breakthrough. Is there a communication-challenged creator in your organization who could use a champion to get ideas moving?


Finally, once the initial product met success, they didn’t stop creating. Apple released 7 versions of the iPod between 2001 and 2007. Each had an incremental improvement in storage capacity or user interface. They also created other product lines including the iPod Nano, iPod shuffle, iPad, and eventually iPhone. Each creation adapted the last. The Wright Brothers took a similar approach adding endurance and eventually a second seat to their Flyers. In both cases, once the creation was in the wild, the Wright Brothers and Apple worked to build on success and further develop their products. Where can you build on recent success rather than starting on a new project?


Innovation centers attract forward-thinking talent and demonstrate an institutional commitment to advancement. The problem is more than just semantic when the institution ignores the difference between innovation and creativity. Those who are expecting a solution as slick as the white board walls of the innovative center are likely to be disappointed by the fitful progress, ubiquitous failure, and messy work of creativity. Generating small creative wins among not only those employees assigned to the innovation hub, but also those working on the front lines of the business, puts the institution in a place to reap incremental payoffs while improving the overall odds of hitting the innovation homerun in the future. 

Dan Manning is the CEO of Firepower Concepts, LLC, a firm helping businesses and non-profits apply creativity to solve their toughest problems. Combining academic study with techniques refined over a career as a fighter pilot and warrior-diplomat, Dan unleashes the transforming power of creative thinking to do what could not be done before. Dan is available for keynotes, team training, consulting, and guided ideation. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the opinions of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.

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