Creativity, Innovation & the Box

We are surrounded by increasingly strident exhortations to “think outside the box.” It’s an interesting expression, and one that has almost become a cliché.

Consultants, coaches and executives are all fond of encouraging the transcendence of cubist boundaries. The challenge is understanding what behaviour is being sought and desired when people ask us to leave behind our equilateral quadrilateral and seek solutions elsewhere.

For the most part, being “out of the box” is code for seeking new ideas. There are some implicit presumptions and expectations that are embedded here. Specifically, there is an expectation of seeking new horizons, reject current solutions and thinking and be open to input from elsewhere. Most often, it is code for needing to be creative. Or innovative. Which are concepts that often get used interchangeably.

The challenge is that “creativity” and “innovation” do not actually represent the same idea. They are related, certainly, but they are also very different. Looking at a dictionary definition, creativity is defined as “having the quality of something created rather than imitated; imaginative.” By contrast, innovation is defined as “the introduction of something new; a new method, idea or device.” At a casual glance, this might seem like a variation on a theme. Dig deeper, though, and clear differences emerge.

The definition of innovation isn’t just about novelty. There is a practical bent to it, in that the result is a method, an idea or a device that we can use. In other words, we are meant to do something—and be able to accomplish something very different—with the results of innovation. Creativity has no such practical interest. It is about imagination, about finding new forms and means of expression rather than deriving from existing ones. Creativity may build on what came before, but it doesn’t imitate.

Some of you may be wondering if there is a point here, or whether I’m simply making a semantic argument. And my answer would be that while I am in fact drawing a semantic distinction, it is with a very clear point in mind. What we create is very different from what we innovate. And creation and innovation have very different relationships to “out of the box.”

When we innovate, we are seeking a new way of functioning, doing or performing. When we innovate, what we are often doing is bringing existing solutions or knowledge together in new and different ways. We are integrating concepts from different fields. We are findings solutions that are new to us, but that may not be new to others. The role of innovation to the box is an important one; ‘out of the box’ is the test of whether we innovate well or not. The box defines our current reality, the problem that we need to move away from. Innovation guides us out of the box to the solution that we need to move towards.

Creation is an altogether different experience. One of the interesting things about how creativity works is that that, while its product is imaginative and altogether different than what has come before, the creative process is one of rigour, discipline, habit and routine, as choreographer Twyla Tharp outlines in her great book The Creative Habit. In particular, creativity operates in response to constraints. As Piers Ibbotson outlines in The Illusion of Leadership, creativity is a boundary phenomenon. It responds best to the appropriate and inspired use of boundaries. Whether those are the edges of the page, or the limits of a problem, we are at our most creative when confronted with limits and challenges.

In other words, our relationship to the box is very different in the act of creation. The boundaries of the box aren’t something to surpass—as we expect with innovation—but are instead something to explore, understand and embrace. The limits and constraints represented by the box are what inspire and encourage creativity to occur. Without limitation, where possibilities are boundless, the spark of creativity often sputters. It is the presence of constraints that fuels the spark and ignites the develop something entirely new that transcends what we know to be possible.

Clarifying this distinction isn’t intended to diminish one, or elevate the other. Creativity and innovation are both essential, but they are also both very different. They work differently, they respond to different prompts and motivations and they are managed differently. Conflating the two ideas blurs the intent and value that each offers. We need to recognize, appreciate and embrace the role that creativity and innovation both play. Above all, we need to recognize that they interact very differently with the box.

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