Matchstick Metaphor – Distinguishing Between Creativity and Innovation

I remember reading some survey results expounding on CEOs requests for more innovation in their companies. According to the results, CEOs were extolling the virtues of enabling people within their companies to be more creative and bringing forth more innovative ideas. The clarion call for the next big idea to claim a new niche in the ever-burgeoning marketplace is loud and clear.

I was talking with a fellow consultant the other day whose business is focused on gender equity and supporting women in tech business environments. When asked how she was pursuing that aspect of her business, she shrugged and said it was under the auspice of innovation. I must have looked askance, because she shared that, from her perspective, unless you were selling under the new business catch-phrase of innovation, there was no other marketplace out there. This really left me wondering, what is innovation and how does it differ from creativity?

From my perspective creativity is the spark or new idea, analogous to the coated end of a matchstick. It’s just sitting there waiting to be struck against a surface to ignite. The friction is the human mind that sees the need between the coated end of the matchstick and the surface area. A bit of a tangent, but isn’t it interesting that some matches are “safety matches” and can only be ignited against a special kind of surface, whereas the “strike-anywhere matches” can be ignited against any type of surface? Some companies have creativity baked into their DNA, while others must have special circumstances to invoke that creative spirit.

The actual igniting of the match head isn’t always easy; if you’ve ever tried to light matches with the wind gusting or with previously wet matches, you know that just creating the spark can be a valiant effort. The real trick is getting the match to actually burn long enough to accomplish a task, like lighting a fire stove. That process of keeping the spark alive long enough to actually do something with it is what I refer to as innovation.

There are two parts to innovation. First, it’s the right mix of heat, fuel and oxygen that will keep the fire on the matchstick going. In safety parlance, it’s the fire triangle. This aspect of innovation is the right mix of individuals needed to build the spark into an ongoing flame. One person may come up with the idea, but for that idea to take off there needs to be collaboration with others to make it flame. There is another, oft missed, element to innovation; the support to build innovation and the environment. Going back to the matchstick, support is length of the matchstick itself. The longer the length of the wood, the more time you have to light what you need. Have you ever been burned because it took too long and you burned your finger before the candle or stove was lit? Support is the encouragement, interest and engagement by company leaders to nurture those who have the creative idea.

Finally, there is the environment of the organization itself. Think about trying to light a stove only to realize the gas is turned off. Or what about trying to light a fire and realizing all the wood is wet? These are areas that need innovation, but are not prepared or ready to receive the results. What about those gas stoves where the gas is not only turned on, but the heat is put on the highest setting? Yes, the match will light the stove, and burn your eyelashes or hair in the process. These are company environments that are too exhausting or over-fueled to sustain innovation. What’s the right environment? That depends on the innovative idea and how penetrating it is. Suffice to say that factors such as structure to enable incubation and growth, an expanding mindset focused on “And” as opposed to “Either/Or,” and the time to operate in a state of liminality and flux can all be hugely important in the successful realization of any innovation.

Does your company have what it takes to create both the spark and fuel the innovation?

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