Innovation is the structure and creativity animates it.
“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not. ”
— -Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching (chap. 11, tr. Waley)
This is a profound passage from the Tao Te Ching. The wisdom here captures a timeless aspect of our existence. While Lao Tsu might have had another interpretation in mind, I found it helpful to explain the interaction between forms and the formless.
Creativity is inherently messy, playful, chaotic, and beautiful, but does not need purpose or constraints to become manifest. Innovation is a disciplined process of shaping a valuable good or service out of ambiguous opportunities from customers who don’t yet know what they want, but definitely feel pain as they move through an imperfect world.
Innovation is therefore Lau Tsu’s clay that is shaped to define the strategy and constraints that make Creativity productive and useful. Without it, the hot water and tea leaves would make a big mess on the table to no meaningful purpose. Conversely, Innovation without Creativity is only an empty pot, defining what should be, yet failing to live up to its full potential.
Moving from ancient philosophy to modern psychology, the difference between creativity and innovation might also be explained through personality traits.
In the Big Five Personality Model, there are two seemingly opposing traits, Openness and Conscientiousness. The remaining traits are Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.
Highly creative individuals score well on intellect, openness to new ideas and experiences. Highly conscientious individuals score well on self-discipline, organization, and planning. These two personality traits are uncorrelated, yet I believe are essential to innovation practitioners as they conceive new ideas.
Innovation is fundamentally a process-driven discipline. Practitioners may debate the nuances of the process steps, say how often you should seek customer feedback while developing a product, but all of us are in agreement that an organized process is essential to successfully fostering innovation. Conscientiousness, is therefore a key component of innovation.
A lack of Openness in the Innovation process will doom the efforts of the team to incremental improvements, making minor product line extensions that are derivative to the original. Open, creative thinkers actively synthesize new information, form categories, and connect new ideas to existing knowledge. While a Conscientious thinker might methodically hear the same customer insights, it is the Open thinker who can creatively apply new knowledge to the existing and combine it in truly novel useful ways. Conversely, the Open thinker might generate 10 novel ideas a week, some are dangerous, and one might revolutionize an industry. It is the Conscientious thinker who provides the required structure, pragmatism, and sustained focus to make the big vision into a reality.
It is a rare individual who is both highly Open and highly Conscientious. If you are like most people and tend towards one or the other trait, your innovation efforts are greatly helped by diverse perspectives from team members who balance each other’s traits, strengths, and weaknesses. Therefore, a balance between creativity and discipline, form and formless needs to be sought in order to build successful innovation teams.