Creativity and innovation: same-same but different

Creativity and innovation: same-same but different

Do creative leaders and innovation managers perform the same innovation role? A few months ago, I had an interesting conversation related to this question with the global head of idea and innovation management of a tech multinational. He revealed to my surprise that he sometimes has to supply ideas to his organisation's idea management system. This is an executive who is supposed to be a strategic, big-picture thinker driving major innovation initiatives. Sweating the small stuff is a waste of his time and talent, if you ask me.

Many organisations seem to interpret the role of the executive spearheading corporate innovation as a "Mr Know-it-all-do-it-all". I believe that's wrong, and I believe we must make a distinction between the role of a creative leader and that of an innovation manager. Let me elaborate by discussing the responsibilities of each role and, with the help of my TIPS profiling method, make a case for why these roles suit fundamentally different personality types.

Creative leaders: Driving innovation from the front. Creative leaders run the "innovation front office" of their organisation. They set or influence the innovation agenda by identifying new trends and technologies to focus on. They spearhead or participate in innovation initiatives, such as new product development or product design teams. They participate in events and conferences to promote innovation within and outside of the organisation.

Creative leaders inspire and drive innovation teams towards excellence to bring truly novel and meaningful ideas to life in the form of new products, services or customer experiences. They look for new business models, strategic partnerships, networks and channel solutions to multiply revenue from innovation. Finally, they drive campaign, packaging and branding initiatives that magnify the innovation in the eyes of customers.

Creative leaders ought to be at the very top of the executive structure, whether as CEO or chief innovation officer (CIO). This allows them to drive or at least influence the agenda, and to intervene and remove any internal barriers preventing innovation. Famous CEOs who exemplify the role of a creative leader are Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Jeffrey Immelt (General Electric).

Innovation managers: driving from the back. Innovation managers run the "innovation back office". They take care of internal responsibilities such as: organising and administering the formal innovation management system; managing the corporate innovation pipeline (top ideas earmarked for activation); administering and maintaining an online idea submission and evaluation system; organising innovation events and project initiatives; developing and fine-tuning an innovation measurement system; and measuring and controlling innovation performance and efficiency.

The innovation manager heads a dedicated team that supports and directly reports to the creative leader. A good example is Tim Cook, who took care of Apple's "back office" to support Steve Jobs before rising to CEO when the latter passed away.

Why does the innovation function benefit from two separate lead roles? Thinkergy's TIPS innovation profiling system (Theories, Ideas, People, Systems) helps us to understand why it is beneficial to separate the two roles of a creative leader and an innovation manager. They draw on diametrically opposite energy sources, and should be staffed by different profiles.

Creative leaders are all about "Ideas". Ideas people innately drive change, innovation and progress. They are strategic visionaries who enjoy focusing on boosting corporate performance, profitability and margins through innovations. TIPS profiles that naturally cater to this energy -- and thus qualify to be a creative leader or be developed into a future one -- are Ideators, Conceptualisers, Promoters and Imaginative Experimenters.

In contrast, innovation managers draw on "Systems". Systems people enjoy organising, directing, coordinating and controlling internal activities. They take pleasure in setting up and running an innovation management system, including defining measures that allow them to check on innovation performance and efficiency. TIPS profiles that innately operate on Systems energy -- and thus make dependable innovation managers -- are Systematisers, Organisers, Technocrats, and Systematic Experimenters.

But what if you insist on keeping the two roles together? One compromise would be to staff the role of "creative innovation manager" with a balanced Experimenter or an All-Rounder, both of whom can bridge the divide between the two polar energies of "Ideas" and "Systems". But, as with most compromises, you end up with a suboptimal result, because one person will be less effective than a real S-based innovation manager supporting a real I-based creative leader.

Conclusion: Not either/or, but both. Both creative leaders and innovation managers care for driving innovation in an organisation. But they do it by different means and by focusing on different ends. Both roles support and complement each other by letting each person play to his or her strengths while compensating for the weaknesses of each other's shadow-side. So, separate the two functions of the creative leader and the innovation manager. And consider using TIPS to find out how to put the right person in each role.

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Limited (, the Ideation and Innovation Company in Asia. He is also an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. He can be reached at

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