Creativity to Innovation in the “Age of Austerity” (Part 1)


For companies seeking to “adopt” an innovation mindset is not an easy task. In the extant literature alone there are hundreds of vague definitions and typologies of Innovation. So what exactly is it? And how can we nurture a mindset of constant reinvention in the workplace as well as the marketplace to create and sustain a competitive advantage in today’s resource-constrained economy?

What is it?

In business, we use the concepts “creativity” and “innovation” interchangeably. And many people believe that you have to be creative to be innovative. This approach is not as accurate as one might think, and it is of vital importance that businesses understand the clear distinction between these two ubiquitously used words before they decide to walk or run down the innovation route. The English Dictionary describes creativity as: “The ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.” Everyone can be creative. But more on this later. Innovation, on the other hand, is defined as the process that transforms those forward-looking new ideas into real world (commercial) products, services, or processes of perceived, enhanced, value. According to Baer (2012), innovation can be thought of as the successful implementation of creative ideas within an organization. In fact, if we think of creativity and innovation as a 2 step process, the creativity stage of the innovation process can be considered a cognitive process (Nagasundaram and Dennis, 1993) and the second stage of ideas implementation (innovative behaviour and actions) can be characterized more as a social-political process (Frost and Egri, 1991; Van De Ven, 1986).

Anyone can be creative

Creativity and imagination begin with perception. And how you perceive something isn’t just the reality of what your eyes and ears transmit to your brain. It’s a product of your brain itself. Perception and imagination are linked because the brain uses the same neural pathways for both functions. The reason it’s so difficult to imagine truly novel ideas has to do with how the brain interprets signals from all your senses. Naturally, interpretation of these signals will be a direct result of your past experiences and previous learning. This is a double-edged sword. Because as our experiences shape the way we interpret what we see and learn: our brain becomes more efficient in interpreting new information “easier and quicker”, but at the same time, we are limited by the very same “cemented” thinking patterns that have made it easier (from experience) for us to perceive and process new information. Our brains are lazy, they want to conserve energy. When we are faced with old or new situations we subconsciously convert to our “old patterns of thinking”. Those thinking patterns are exactly that: patterns. Patterns of neural connections that span our entire brain. According to Scott B. Kaufman who wrote in Scientific American The key to understanding the neuroscience of creativity lies not only in knowledge of large-scale networks, but in recognizing that different patterns of neural activations and deactivations are important at different stages of the creative process.”  Thus, even though our thinking patterns limit or enable our creative and imaginative thought process, it is important to know that neuroscientists have found that the whole creative thinking process is indeed a process in our brain that activates certain neural networks corresponding to the problem or pursuit at hand, while the “aha” moment usually happens when those same neural networks are “quiet” or deactivated and the Default (imagination) network takes over (activated when we are not really focusing on anything). Something we can neurologically all do. Freethinkers or revolutionaries are rightly named so because they literally “think freely”. People like Steve Jobs and Walt Disney were not geniuses. They were merely people who literally saw things differently. And along with amazing and equally talented and creative teams were able to implement and transform their ideas into innovations. They were able to create processes that nurtured the natural creativity in the people working with them and transform these ideas into real value. Because creativity on its own is of no commercial value.

So how can we transform creativity into innovation?

Joel Chan, cognitive scientist, explains in an interview with Tanner Christiansen Our attention to details (not only in the real world and in our experiences, but in the thoughts and feelings we have as well), combined with the ability to connect related ideas (i.e. through metaphors), the intent to prime ideas for creative output, the ability to forget unimportant or uncreative concepts, and a bit of imagination are what drive creativity. Chan goes on to describe 5 processes at work when we are thinking creatively. Knowledge of brain processes at work during creative thought are extremely useful when trying to harness and nurture your teams’ creative output. Sending them all on a retreat is probably a good idea to get their “creative juices flowing” but we have to remember that different problems, as well as solving different stages of a problem, require the use of different neural networks, meaning that a combination of internal and external factors will affect the creative thought process. Therefore, correctly identifying the problem or the opportunity and understanding its complexity and how you will structure, engage and motivate your teams to tackle the problem; before collecting random “ideas” from everyone is key. It must be stated that not all ideas are good ideas and neither are they all creative ones. A good, creative, idea must be measurable, timely, simple enough to be easily incorporated into the fabric of the organisation, it must also be championed by all senior level management and above all: must create value.

Businesses today are in pursuit of using creative thinking to solve complex problems. And they automatically think of how they can “innovate”… or try to think “outside the box” to come up with possible solutions to problems in the hope of stumbling onto the next big thing; but at most, even if they succeed, they’ll be disrupting markets at best. Consider this, as today’s problems are changing, so does our approach to solving them have to change. Economically, the West, along with other developed countries, have been at the forefront of innovative output globally. In fact, over 16 types of innovation have been officially categorised by scholars and experts (see all typologies and their concise descriptions here). But there is one type, rising from the East and gaining momentum, and that is “Frugal Innovation”. Our survival is becoming the main driver of creative thought behind this kind of innovation.

To read part 2, please click here.