What is innovation? Innovation involves the development of novel and impactful transformations; the process for how things happen. Here novelty is critical — innovation involves something new and genuinely different coming into being. In this manner, innovation and invention are forms of applied creativity. Really they are all creative acts — whether it is an invention, an innovation, or a creative outcome — something new and different is conceived.
Quite often creativity and innovation are defined as being distinct. From this perspective, creativity is defined as being some far-out and pure expression of human imagination with no bearing or impact on reality. And innovation is the pragmatic application of creativity to solving some existing problem. But, are these distinctions really that useful? We think not. After all, some innovations can be pretty far-out, and many forms of creativity could have nothing to do with humans at all.
In our own work, we have found that it is better to think of innovation and creativity as being synonymous: innovation and creativity are both processes of producing genuine novelty.
It is not the terms that interest us. Ultimately we are interested in how change and the new become possible. Approaches that parse out ever-finer distinctions between these terms are not simply getting caught up in linguistic gymnastics but are leading us astray into believing we could separate human imaginings from worldly actions. These perceptions are ultimately part of why we need to reinvent innovation; specifically innovation in business.
This essay will address these perceptions, answering the question “what is innovation?”
For us, the distinctions and confusions surrounding how we use the terms innovation and creativity are symptomatic of a far larger problem: we, in the West, have a profoundly misguided approach to creativity and innovation. It is these assumptions that we wish to illuminate and ultimately correct with a new approach to innovation.
Before we begin engaging directly with innovation and creativity we need to pause and take a detour into the early history of the West’s view of these concepts.
If we go back and understand the logic of early creativity, we will see that modern culture has misconstrued these innovative thinking processes in nearly every possible way.
We don't say this lightly or for the sake of being provocative. This is a conclusion that we have reluctantly come to through our work over the last two decades helping communities, academics, individuals and companies innovate across a crazy diversity of fields, contexts, and situations globally.
Years ago, when we first started working with others to innovate, we would spend countless hours researching, testing, and modifying dozens of existing ideas, approaches, and systems for fostering creativity. We tried everything from Human-Centered Design to Lateral Thinking and everything in between.
It was only through utilizing and putting these innovation approaches to the test that we came to seriously doubt all standard models of creativity, design, and innovation. Quite simply they did not lead to innovation — at the most, they led to reasonably interesting variations of what we already knew. But, real innovation? No.
Seeing firsthand the limits of so many highly distinct models for creativity led us to realize we needed to look deeper into how we as a culture have come to define, understand and conceptualize creativity.
Digging into the history of creativity in the Western tradition was, for us, at first profoundly frustrating. However, it ultimately led us to a transformative experience which revolutionized our own approach to innovation.
What was really frustrating was the total lack of any discussion about what we would call creativity (the making of something genuinely novel). Even dating back to the ancient Greeks, there is simply no discussion of how humans can make something novel.
Instead, what we found was a model of making via inspiration. Inspiration literally means: “divine guidance.” Human creation was understood as following a pregiven model (God’s plan) gained via inspiration (God's help), which we should then copy and make real as best we could (God’s grace). In this framework, humans come to do novel things only by following a directive stemming from a fixed plan gained by outside intervention.
What was the content and goal of this divine guidance? From these ancient Greek beginnings, divine guidance (the muses) took the form of assisting us in uncovering a predetermined and ahistorical ideal (idea and plan).
These ideals were manifestations of true essences (pure ideas). And for the Greeks to be true meant it could not be changeable. After all, two plus two cannot equal five tomorrow and still be true. The truth was something fixed and unchanging. Because it was unchanging it could not be material, tangible, or part of our everyday world — for everything material in this world eventually decomposes and disappears. In the world of our everyday lives, everything changes. Thus, the ideals — the essences and truths that the western tradition sought to uncover and follow were necessarily immaterial, unchanging, essential truths. And as unchanging truths, they reveal a mindset in which the highest human aspiration is not in making something new or of this world but in copying perfectly something unchanging and otherworldly.
Western makers and thinkers came to see fixed essences and unchanging models everywhere. This search for hidden plans and models behind everything can be seen in Da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man sketch. Da Vinci believed that humans were modeled on perfect geometric forms of the circle and the square.
That one could define the human form with a circle, and a square showed that there was a fixed hidden plan and perfection to the universe.
While today we admire Da Vinci for what we understand anachronistically to be his innovations and inventiveness — in short, his creativity — he understood himself to be doing the opposite: finding and following a timeless truth to the full degree his “genius” (the inclinations that God gave him) allowed him. For Da Vinci and the historical Western tradition, the world and all that is — is the physical realization of a pre-existing idea or plan.
In this tradition, humans are always situated as more or less successful copiers of a pre-existing immaterial ideal or plan. Within this worldview, only God, or some form of prime mover, could be said to truly create something novel (in coming up with the ideal plan). Humans on their own do nothing genuinely creative.
Humans believe ideas are everything. We are those who gain access to the “mind of God.” And then once we have access these ideas flow into our mind as ideas that we can act upon.
It would be a mistake to think of this as simply a religious worldview, or an outdated mode of philosophizing, or a quaint, but interesting, historical anecdote. The underlying logic of this story is still very much the underlying logic of how we understand and explain the invention of things, and the functioning of scientific truths today.
Once you recognize this model, you will see it is everywhere:
There can be no doubt that this model is very much alive and well today.
But is it the correct way to understand creativity and reality in general? Does it have any actual validity?
The simple answer is no — it is based upon outdated concepts of:
Despite this knowledge our historical habits persist — we are still mistakenly looking for unchanging essences, fixed mind-based ideas, and complete blueprints — and in doing so fail to see how the reality all around us is complex, highly interdependent, historically contingent, planless, and profoundly creative — with novelty emerging spontaneously where least expected.
In light of this, it makes perfect sense that the very first usage of the word “creativity” in English as a noun was only in 1875. While this might sound shocking, it is profoundly important to recognize that we do not come from a history or tradition that has had a longstanding interest or place for genuine novelty. And because of this, most of our contemporary ideas about creativity carry over complex hidden anti-creative habits, concepts, and processes.
The inability of our current creativity models to foster real novelty makes perfect sense when you realize that they have unwittingly carried over into the present the basic logic and process of a tradition that understands novelty as ultimately unreal or as only arising from some fixed ahistorical idea.
But, understanding this fixation with fixed ideas and plans does not fully explain the power these models have held over our development of creative methods. The main force that these models have today is in the processes that we still use to foster creativity. These historical models of design are “God models” and their process is one in which they ask us to act like a God of creation and to think things into being. This process has three key steps:
But, if creativity is, as we will argue, about the emergence of anything novel — how can it be focused on ideation and the follow-through from this initial idea?
Do new forms of life creatively emerge via ideation?
Of course not — how could a dinosaur brainstorm its way into becoming a bird? If we look around and see the novelty of life — we know that none of this creativity followed a plan or an idea — it came about because of a complex, contingent, and unthinking process of evolution (which we will investigate shortly for cues to an alternative model of creativity).
With most of our current models of creativity, we can see that they have unconsciously carried forward the classical linear model (ideate, plan, make) that never had to actually address the question of how novelty is possible because it was taken for granted that God was the only one capable of creating.
But with God — or any fixed immaterial ideal — removed from the picture of creativity, does this linear model still make sense?
How does this “ideate first” model account for the emergent creativity that arises in action? In materials? In environments? In evolution? In unplanned accidents?
Before fully addressing these questions that take us into the heart of real creative processes, it is important to understand how pervasive and implicit this “ideate first” model of creativity is today.
In our own research and comprehensive surveys of what innovation is and the models of creativity — nearly every model assumes that creativity is about thinking and ideas (we will mention the rare alternatives later).
Classical creativity and design are taught as a process of developing an idea, drawing it up (as a plan to show how to make it), and then making it (or having it made).
Go to almost any design or architecture program today and you will see students presenting perfectly rendered ideas and plans for feedback. Pick up pretty much any guide to innovation and its process will begin with Ideation.
Aren’t we being far too all-encompassing? Are there not examples of design processes that do not begin with Ideation? For example, doesn’t Design Thinking begin by empathizing and talking with users?
This is true, but the revisions to this process proposed by Design Thinking and other similar models keep the core model intact and simply tack on an extra step at the beginning. For example:
We encourage you to look at every innovation design method — the vast majority are basically “Ideate, Plan, Make”?
You will be surprised, there really is not much else… leaving those asking what innovation is perplexed.
While all of these tools (empathy, trend analysis, frame research, etc.) are critically important to good design — tacking these onto the fundamentally flawed skeleton of the model still leaves you with a fundamentally flawed model.
What is it that makes this three-step “ideate first '' model so problematic for creativity? After all, one could argue that its origin is beside the point — if it works to produce novelty.
If it works, does it really matter if it was invented as a myth?
So the question is: can the “ideation first” model produce profound novelty?
Three fundamental problems sink this ship:
If we pause for a moment and just reflect on how creativity models are focused on ideation — it is in the literal dictionary definition of creativity.
Search how to define creativity in The Oxford English Dictionary and we see Creativity: “the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work”.
What is important here is:
The now almost universal assumption is that of course thinking happens in the brain and therefore we should move onto narrowing down the hunt for the source of creativity to its specific location (or locations) in the brain.
This “it's all in the head” model with its brain region focus for understanding activities like creativity has also underpinned most of the classical creativity research programs. This has led to a focus on creativity being something fundamentally neurological — a thing that can be strengthened or weakened by our habits and practices.
But, the most recent work in cognition and neurology does not support this approach:
What? How can that be? Where else would thinking happen?
Of course, our type of thinking requires a brain, but the brain alone is not sufficient for thinking.
The brain is best understood as being functionally inseparable from the body-in-action interacting with the immediate environment.
Thinking does not take place in the brain — to properly understand thinking (and by extension, creativity) we need to understand that thinking happens via a coalition of brain-body-tools-environment.
This approach is based upon the discoveries of the Embodied Cognition (EC) approach to mind, brain, and cognition strongly critiques the classical “ideas = representations = brain processing” model of understanding thinking.
This can be understood as the coming together of how we are embodied, extended, embedded, enactive and affective. This is often called the “4EA” model of cognition for short (Embodied, Embedded, Extended, Enactive & Affective Cognition). Let’s understand each of these concepts individually:
1. Embodied: Our brains are part of our unique bodies. Having the types of bodies we do — moving, grasping, sensing, and acting with specific bodies gives rise to our forms of thinking which in turn feeds back into the forming of our body's abilities. Practically, what does this mean for thinking? The specific types of bodies we have, and how we use them directly shape the underlying structure of our thinking — from guiding metaphors to abstract concepts. Changing the body and changing the body's habits/actions will change how you think.
2. Extended: The kinds of thinking that we do could not happen without tools. An example: most complex math is not possible without tools: writing (symbols) plus paper and pen, or chalkboards and chalk. Today our smartphones act as extensions of our memory storing hundreds of phone numbers we otherwise would not know. In thinking the appropriate set of partners are assembled: diverse brain regions + specific embodied actions + necessary external artifacts, into a holistic coalition to carry out the task of thinking. Again, practically, this means that to think creatively we need to focus on new tools, techniques, and practices and connect them experimentally into effective novel assemblages. We can think of this as setting up types of labs for novelty. Tools/objects will surprise us with unintended capacities that can be discovered and followed under the right conditions.
3. Embedded: Thinking is embedded in a concrete environment and this environment shapes and patterns thinking. Chairs, rooms, houses, streets, and patterns of sidewalk and lawn might seem incidental but are fundamental not simply to thinking in general but to why our thinking gravitates towards certain patterns, logic, and outcomes.
4. Enactive: Thinking is fundamentally tied to acting — to doing where meaning arises via our actions. Meaning and thought arise during situated actions that are in a context of being co-determined along with our environment. Doing en-acts meaning into being. A cup is a cup because we use it as a cup (for containing liquids to drink), and the idea of containing arises through our specific actions of using things like cups to contain as part of a larger action such as drinking — which in turns gives rise to a model of quenching thirst which gives rise to a conceptual terrain of “thirsting” and being “quenched” — that extends far beyond actual liquids and physical needs.
5. Affective: We equate thinking with rationality, logic, and high-level conceptualizing. While we do use logic — our intellectual lives and all of our thinking rests upon an emotional foundation that is continuous with colors, and saturates all experience. Experience and thoughts bubble up out of an emotional atmosphere — tone — that is our most basic sense of being alive. Most of the time we are not even aware of this emotional affect shaping our thoughts — emotion is working at a subconscious and minimally conscious level. And then when we are called upon to explain our actions or thoughts we skip right over the role of emotion and jump right to “reasons and logic” most of which have little to do with the actuality of our experience, decision making, or thinking. Understanding this is critical to creativity and we will go into this in detail in the next section.
How does all of this help us be creative? Anderson says it best, “we are [embodied] social environment-altering tool users. Tools give us new abilities, leading us to perceive new affordances, which can generate new environmental (and social) structures, which can, in turn, lead to the development of new skills and new tools, that through a process… of scaffolding greatly increases the reach and variety of our cognitive and behavioral capacities” (After Phrenology: Neural Reuse and the Interactive Brain by Anderson, p. 182).
And this is far removed for a world of brainstorming and other techniques of pure thinking and ideation — which is very good, because:
Here is where the central problem lies with ideation's first models of creativity: the modes of thinking that ideation relies on are concept and representation dependent. They are most often inductive or deductive forms of conceptual reasoning. And these concepts pre-exist the activity of ideation and fundamentally shape it. Ideation is thus inherently tied to the past and what already exists. And if it already exists, it cannot be considered novel, which means: ideation cannot directly lead to novelty.
Ideation, and thinking in general, is by its very nature a fundamentally conservative activity.
Put bluntly: if something is genuinely novel it cannot at first be conceptualized. Radical novelty at its birth is a-conceptual and non-representational. Humans cannot independently think their way to the new, therefore the whole Western edifice of the three-step “ideate first” model of developing novel outcomes falls apart. Starting with, and focusing on, ideation will never lead to genuine novelty. And moving through a linear sequence of Ideate, Plan, and Make is logically antithetical to creativity.
Does this mean thinking and idea generation have no role in creativity? Of course not. Ideas matter. But it is a question of when, in what form, and in relation to what other ongoing activity.
We like to say:
No Ideas But in Making.
But that’s just the beginning of it. Now let's turn to the third fundamental reason our classical model of Ideate, Plan and Make cannot work:
It is not only ideation that is the problem. The process of three steps of Ideate, Plan and Make — and their sequence is deeply flawed.
First, these methods put all the emphasis on creativity as occurring solely at the initial stage of Ideation (after which you are just making the creative idea real via a plan and method of production). We now know that ideation cannot lead directly to novelty. Given this, using a model of innovation where after novelty is ideated, all that is left to do is “carry it out” will also never achieve innovation.
Now, of course, you can have an idea, develop a plan, and make it real. That is not in doubt. We all do this every day:
I have an idea for a cup of coffee every morning. I make a quick plan to boil water in a kettle and grind some coffee, get a filter and make my coffee. No big deal: Ideate, Plan, Make.
But the question is: will this process get you anything creative and novel?
The idea to have coffee, and the carrying out of this plan is far from a novel path. We cannot confuse a process that works in everyday life to simply get known things done with the process to get anything realized.
From the perspective of creativity, this process which puts all creativity into the first step of ideation and then relegates the rest of the process to realizing the plan makes the fatal error – it assumes the world is passive and has no creative impact on our designs.
The classical way we tell the stories of great inventions and the emergence of new creative practices, is to talk exclusively about the people involved, their ideas, and their struggles. But almost nothing is said about the objects, materials, tools, and environments involved.
Equipment of all kinds has surprising powers to shape outcomes and plays a fundamental role in innovation. What do we mean by “powers”? Put simply we mean that things shape us.
Contemporary studies of cognition have shown that the objects (and environments) we use, fundamentally shape and transform our thinking. Tools and their use rewire our brains, change our muscles and skeletons, remake our organs, make new patterns of thought, change our sense of self, and as Marshall McLuhan argued “leave no part of us, or our culture, untouched or unchanged.”
Objects don’t merely support or extend existing human capacities but fundamentally transform us: we are what we use. Obvious examples: how smartphones have transformed us, less obvious but perhaps more profound are the tools that we seldom notice such as our alphabet.
This is not an argument critiquing technology, far from it — to be human is to use things — lots of things, and these things that we make and then use, change us. And this has always been the case. What matters is that we recognize that the things we make in turn make us. This is especially critical as innovators — we are not merely making things that solve problems but we are always making new things that change us and our surrounding environment to such a degree that new worlds emerge.
If creativity is not all about ideas or reducible to the human then we have to turn to things as our partners in experimentation and invention: Making is thinking when we allow things and environments to shape us as we shape them. In experimenting (as well as puttering, playing, tinkering, improvising, etc.) the agency of things comes into play:
When a carving knife meets a piece of wood, the wood — matter — tells us things: I will split along the grain, I can bend, if you do this I will snap…
It is in this meeting space of action that vague hunches form: “what happens if…?” Here a kernel of an idea forms out from the midst of acting and it leads on to follow the material and the practices further. Vague thoughts form in making: no ideas but in making — and these nebulous thoughts do not act to unilaterally impose plans but ask us to experimentally stay in the messy mix of things and follow an emerging practice in which other ideas might emerge. Who is having these thoughts? They are authored by the event.
The “idea first” model of creativity and innovation imagines that matter is something passive, that in a God-like manner it forcefully shapes a semi-arbitrary matter into whatever we imagine and deem it should become. But matter, stuff, things – have never been passive. Matter has propensities that come to the fore depending on how we engage with them and in this way form (what we want something to become) cannot be separated from the forming power of things as processes (splitting, bending, cracking, hardening, swelling, etc.).
The history of human invention shows us that most often the so-called great inventors were not great intellectuals purely ideating their way to novelty at a desk — they were most often the opposite: skeptical self-taught tinkerers who were most comfortable collaborating with materials and letting vague aesthetic feelings lead towards the emergence of speculative imaginings via experimental forms of deeply engaged probing, testing and making.
They experimented and noticed that wood if steamed bends along its grain. Metal heated and then quickly cooled will be far harder than a metal left to cool naturally. Add the mineral Kaolin to clay and it will become almost as hard as rock when fired.
When we do things with things, they come alive and speak by revealing emergent properties.
Rather than complaining about uncooperative makers, and the right material not existing, and retreating to pure visionary ideation — novelty emerges from the middle of puttering, playing, testing, experimenting, probing, noticing, and following the material properties in hand.
This is not simply at the level of craft and object making — social change deals with systems far too complex and dynamic for any form of linear action to work. In complex systems, outcomes are by definition unknowable. Probing, following, coevolving, and emerging are the only possibilities.
It can be argued (as we will later in this text) that all creativity comes from reality resisting our ideas. All human creativity surfs and takes advantage of some unintended (non-ideated) possibility of action (a plan).
So why are we not designing for and with the unintended?
After all, evolution does…
Why are we not working with things, environments, and communities directly?
So what is so wrong with our classical models? For us, there are six fundamental errors to the western model of creativity which complicate the answer to our primary question: what is innovation?
The six errors:
There is much to say about these errors and we will get into them as we articulate an alternative vision of creativity.
But this is getting ahead of the story. Once we came to recognize these debilitating errors, we saw them everywhere. And we came to realize that almost every contemporary method for creativity exhibits more than a few of these errors. This should come as no surprise as these concepts often present together. They form our implicit unquestioned paradigm of creativity: this is the human-centered, brain-based, ideation-driven, anti-process, and anti-materialist paradigm of creativity that we in the West have inherited from an almost three thousand-year tradition.
Yes, it is not a simple or recent error — even a superficial glimpse at the literature on creativity will lead one to see that these are deep long-held widespread views encompassing the Western traditions going back to the classical Greek and early Christian thinkers. As we build new habits of creativity, we have some deep (really deep) habits that we have to work our way out of.
To us, in light of these realizations, it is quite clear that today much of how we as a culture understand creativity and innovation seems profoundly misguided.
The point of this critique is not about getting history right or critiquing others — the goal is to pragmatically and effectively understand and foster creativity, as well as ultimately powerful and necessary innovations. Ultimately answering the question: What is innovation?
To do this we need to understand that part of why creativity is so hard to enact and to teach is because we are still implicitly using anti-creative models, frameworks, concepts, and assumptions.
In our own work, we have come to learn the hard way that our historical Western paradigm of creativity is anti-creative. It is based on a series of false assumptions about reality, ideas, humans, brains, the world around us, and creativity itself. For us, the consequences of these fundamental errors mean that we require a wholly new approach to creativity.
Now, lest we give a false impression: it is not that these models have not gone unchallenged. In fact, there are alternative concepts. The issue is that these alternatives are not part of the mainstream discourses of design, innovation, or creativity. To develop new approaches to creativity and innovation one has to wander far from the usual haunts of design and creativity.
Our own deep frustration with the historical Western model of creativity led us to work with researchers in a wide variety of fields. We worked with evolutionary theorists, systems thinkers, embodied cognition researchers, ecologists, urban planners, complexity scientists, non-Western philosophers and practitioners, material science researchers, social activists, political scientists, anthropologists, and historians.
We know from:
While our doubts and frustrations led us to connect with researchers in a wide variety of fields to try and understand why these models did not work — we still had to develop alternative concepts and practices. After many years, we have slowly, via trial and error, come up with a handful of powerful alternative approaches. With every passing year and every new project, we have tried collectively to evolve these techniques and propositions further. This work on an alternative model of creativity has led to this set of alternative propositions for creativity.
To begin to answer the question – what is innovation – we need a working definition of Innovation. Let’s start really simple:
Innovation involves the emergence of novelty.
Now novelty might sound like a trivial word, but novelty means that something new has emerged, and this is profound. The new is different.
Newness is achieved when something genuinely different than what previously existed appears.
Innovation and creativity are about doing something new. The new involves making a change from the past — a difference. But not all forms of change, difference, or newness are the same.
Most often when we encounter change, it is a small change to something that already exists. Perhaps it is an improvement, a minor adjustment, or an extension of its functionality. Making a car go faster or more fuel-efficient are examples of this. This type of “problem-solving,” that makes something better, is a form of developmental change.
But, does all change fall into this category?
No; things that are radically different are not simply improvements. They are entirely different and totally novel approaches to reality.
Thus we can say that there are two distinct forms of change:
In philosophy, these two forms of change are referred to as:
And each of these two forms of change represents different expressions and evolutions of innovation.
For innovation and creativity, what is important is that:
While each form of change is quite distinct (qualitative vs quantitative), and each requires different techniques and approaches to be properly engaged — they are neither in opposition nor totally separate.
All forms of change are connected in a type of double loop: push a quantitative/developmental change far enough and it crosses a threshold and becomes a qualitative/disruptive change, and vice-versa. Every qualitative/disruptive change needs to develop incrementally to be fully realized.
For example, if you slowly and incrementally enlarge a coffee table, it will become a dining room table, and if you keep on incrementally enlarging this it would eventually turn into a simple open shelter. The incremental shift from coffee table to dining room table is a change in degree: we are still dealing with tables. But, when we continue enlarging a table and it becomes a shelter — now they are categorically and functionally totally different-one we sit at, while the other shelters us from the environment.
Thus we have incrementally crossed a category threshold and gone from a change-in-degree (the two tables) to a change-in-kind (tables to shelters). We diagram this by transforming our original drawing of two opposing arrows into a closed double loop. This looping two-directional diagram and logic underlies the Innovation Approach.
While that is a good start to understanding innovation as two forms of change or difference, we need to go further with this definition of innovation:
Finally, what is Innovation? Innovation is the process of the new coming into being.
With a clear definition of innovation and creativity we are able to harness their power for innovation in business. To find and push radical innovation within our organizations culture, product and service development, and response to the 21st century’s cultural shifts.
But It’s not enough to talk about outcomes — of changes in degree or kind — we want to know: how do we get to disruptive innovation?
We've outlined what innovation is, but the real question is how do we innovate?
Because everyone agrees that innovation is paramount to differentiate and survive in business. Unfortunately, as we have seen in the innovation and creativity models highlighted above, how to innovate is overlooked.
Our research does not stop at the dissection of change. Or our understanding - or lack thereof - of how innovation and creativity are applied in Western society.
We've pushed further, spending countless hours to develop a concrete model of innovation and creativity. We created an innovation model that guides users through developmental and disruptive change to realize novel paradigms. A model that insulates businesses from competition and empower organizations to respond to social and environmental crises.
We call it the Innovation Design Approach.
The Innovation Design Approach is a series of tools, methods, practices, and frameworks that generate the novel, new, or difference. To begin your disruptive innovation journey, we offer four ways to engage with us and our model of innovation: