Creativity and Innovation

Thomas Edison

Edison was an inventor. He was creative. But was he an innovator? It’s all a matter of definition.

In drafting my PhD topic I found myself using the word “innovation” in different ways and wondered if this might end up being a problematic term.

What, after all, is “innovative”? To some people, the word means something startlingly original, that’s never been done before. To others it simply means something a little bit different.

So I suspect that innovation is something of a spectrum. Things might be “quite innovative” at one end, or “highly innovative” at the other. Is one more prized? Is one more risky? This might be something I need to find out in the research by interrogating interview subjects or via a questionnaire, or it might be something to get over and done with in the literature review.

The complement to “innovative” would be “creative” or “creativity”. Innovation is always seen as being creative – but are the two words interchangeable?

I Googled (as you do) “what’s the difference between innovation and creativity” and the same definition kept coming up (rarely, if ever, credited to anyone but I think I managed to track down the source: The Innovative Leader: How to Inspire Your Team and Drive Creativity by Paul Sloane)

Creativity is the capability or act of conceiving something original or unusual. Creativity is about unleashing the potential of the mind to conceive new ideas. Creativity is subjective, making it hard to measure.

Innovation is implementation of creative ideas into action which produce something new. Innovation is completely measurable.

So innovation is the process of introducing change in to systems. Someone can be creative and come up with ideas, but the innovator is someone who puts those in to practice.

This is an interesting definition because my starting point is a presumption that the innovative teacher is a largely positive force, but actually some of the policy documents I’ve seen in my travels are implementing (or enforcing) change so are by definition innovative, but few would argue they are “good”. In fact I have a few examples where their effect is to control what goes on in teaching and, therefore, stop innovation.

But that’s okay because my hypothesis (currently) is that innovation at ground floor level (the chalkface, to use the old term) can be thwarted by innovation at management level. However I think this may become problematic so I need to be careful.

Invention and innovation

The idea that “innovative” equals “never been done before” needs to be considered. I wonder if innovative teachers don’t consider themselves innovative if they think someone else has done what they’re doing. Using Twitter in teaching, for example? I have to admit I get annoyed when I go to a T&L conference and someone starts talking about something they’ve done that I know has been going on elsewhere for some time (I wonder if I’ve ever done that!) I suppose what I’m getting annoyed at is not so much the innovation itself but the lack of awareness – people presenting their work as though it’s a radical breakthrough rather than catching up with practice elsewhere.

Invention is the creation of something new. You can be creative and innovative without being inventive. I suspect this distinction is going to come up in interviews etc.

(That’s made me think of something else that I’ll discuss in another post: is innovation good if it’s enforced?)

Was Edison innovative?

I started this post with the question, was Edison innovative? Most people would immediately say “yes” but using the definition above, the correct answer is not so clear. He was certainly “inventive”. But some of his ideas came on the back of other people’s so the jury’s out on whether he was “creative” (this is semantics, sure, but nanos gigantum humeris insidentes and all that). It’s even less clear that he was innovative because it was often up to others to take his inventions and put them in to practice.

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