You Can’t Do Innovation Till You Realize What It Is Not

Early History of Creativity

Before we jump into the act of getting innovative and creative we need to pause and take a serious detour into the early history of creativity concepts in the West.

We Have Nearly Everything Wrong About Creativity

(Yes, we get it, it sounds absurd, academic, and quaint — why revisit ancient history when we are trying to get to the future.)

But, our history has set us on a path to radically misunderstand creativity, and it is a path that still shapes almost every understanding and process for innovation. This is not a conscious shaping that is happening,  these patterns form a deep, unconscious,  unthought, and fully naturalized set of norms, habits, and logics that we keep repeating.

If we are right about this (let's see...) we need to pause, uncover, reconsider, and then re-invent inventing. It is time for some Slow Innovation: We are going to do a deep dive into these now unreflexive anti-creative patterns that shape our modern landscape of innovation. (After that we will start to look at powerful sources of alternatives, but just jumping to these would leave the problematic patterns in place and we would be back to square one…).

Creativity Is Not Part of the Western Tradition

Digging into the history of creativity in the Western tradition we quickly see the total lack of any discussion about what we would call creativity (the making of something genuinely novel). Going all the way back to the ancient Greeks there is simply no discussion of how humans can make something novel.

The West Always Understood Human Creativity as Copying

Instead what we find is a model of making via inspiration. Inspiration literally means: “divine guidance.” Our Christian cultural tradition drawing upon Greek philosophical concepts came to understand human creation as following a pre-given model (God’s plan) gained via inspiration (God's help), which we should then copy and make it real as best we could (God’s grace). In this framework, we humans come to do novel things (but only novel for us) only by following a directive stemming from a fixed plan gained by outside intervention.

The Western logic of creativity is one of:

  1. Gain insight into what it is (inspired ideation)
  2. Articulate that insight (Planning)
  3. Make it, or have it made (Making)
  4. Correct based on comparison to the original inspired idea

Renaissance artists, Baroque composers, Troubadour poets, 16th-century astronomers — they all understood what they were doing to be seeking, finding, understanding, and following a pre-existing plan. They never thought of themselves as experimenting towards something genuinely novel in an open-ended still changing world.

The Form of This Process Is Still With Us Today:

Process for Creativity

While there are many problems with this model for creativity, lets for a moment dwell upon the paradoxes and ironies of the conservative logic of this tradition and its unintended inventiveness…

  • How do you see this tradition in relation to creativity?
  • Have you ever wondered why ideation is at the beginning of innovation?
  • Where or how else could innovation begin?
  • Have you ever worried about how much the logic of static and fixed worldview still implicitly shapes our engagement with an open universe teeming with spontaneous novelty?
  • Are linear plans meaningful/logical/possible in a non-linear world?


This is the first of seven articles critically deconstructing the concepts of creativity and innovation as they have historically developed in the west with the goal of proposing alternative approaches to creativity.

Part One we look at how creativity, in the sense of the making of something genuinely new, was not part of the western tradition until the mid 1800’s. And that for the previous 2,000+ years to create was to copy.

Part Two we delve into “Where did your Big Idea come from? We go on a genealogical journey to discover how we came to believe those big ideas are both the source and goal of creativity and innovation.

Part Three we unearth the overlooked "Thinking is not in your head" – Thinking, especially creative thinking happens in the middle of acting and doing.

Part Four we examine "The New Cannot be Seen or Thought" -- so how does the new emerge if it cannot be seen or thought?

Part Five is an examination of Reality is Creativity -- on creativity being a fundamental aspect of reality itself.

Part Six questions Creativity: “and what else can it do?” -- introducing the concept of affordances and its relevance to creativity so that you can be more creative and innovative.

Part Seven - Creativity is Less - dives deeper into affordances introducing constraints and how they are the unheralded secret to all innovation

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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