Balancing creativity and process when innovating

by John Essegian | published on April 17, 2018

Have we forgotten that innovation at its core is about creativity? 

Take creativity and all of its inefficiency and “messiness” out of the process and you won’t be innovative. Timelines, formulas, and stage gates do help guide your progress but relying on them to produce your close-in — let alone breakthrough — innovation will turn your innovation resources into just a cost center. No competent innovation specialist (and most of them are competent) does this consciously. It simply happens inadvertently all too often and dooms the innovation process. 

The opposite is also true. Innovation driven solely by creativity and devoid of facts, figures, and focus, will drag on and produce, at best, niche products that won’t meet your financial goals. 

Too much of either can not only impact the return on your investment in innovation, it can also result in negative or adverse effects that actually do harm to your brand, culture, or bottom line. Similar to what Malcolm Gladwell calls an inverted U curve in his latest book, “David and Goliath.”

So, how do you balance the scales — and keep them balanced — with the right amount of creativity and process discipline for successful innovation? 

Recognize the challenge

Understanding the importance of balancing creativity and process in innovation may sound obvious but today’s companies are getting this wrong far more often than they’re getting it right. The vision of their decision-makers is clouded by real world pressures. Timelines, budgets, management demands, and a long list of other screens result in compromise and hope instead of strategic innovation. Recognizing the challenge is not a once-and-done, upfront activity. It’s a guidance principle that must be continuously adhered to throughout your innovation process.

Focused creativity

This soon-to-be cliché still has legs. You should know where you’re going. Not in the specific tactical sense of having a preconceived product or service in mind, but know where you’re going in terms of the unmet needs/demand areas your innovation will address. This gives you the best measurement of being on course throughout the process. Any creative process will require iterations for incremental gain. An iterative process is not inherently inefficient, but you must be able to measure progress. 

Get the right mix of players

Probably the most important variable is the people you put into the mix. Pay attention to these four Cs of innovation team development to ensure you have a team comprised of the right individuals to succeed:


This doesn’t mean they are all highly experience innovation experts, just that the team in totality has the skills to get the job done. In fact, a mix of experience levels is good and will result in broader thinking.


Team diversity is good if that diversity is complementary. Complementary skills ensure different thought processes, risk reduction, and the right amount of team contentiousness to be productive. Balance literal thinkers and lateral thinkers, functional differences, as well as realists and dreamers.


Assemble a group that will be competitive collectively as a team, not individually competitive. Team competitiveness can be enhanced with shared goals, the potential of monetary rewards, recognition, and career growth. 


Even in the most innovative companies the best innovation leaders display a balance of prudence and shrewdness. Enough of the former to keep management happy and enough of the latter to get things done. Innovation history and legend are filled with examples of how individuals succeeded by being creative with their company resources, culture, and policies. The old adage of asking for forgiveness instead of permission does help get things done. 

Import ideas

Creative consumers, clients, and consultants can all add value to your innovation process. The outside-in perspective they provide can help you with ideas you may have missed, real-world viewpoints, and shared learning from other companies and experiences. Tunnel vision within organizations is often the norm — and sometimes is a part of the culture. Some organizations unilaterally reject what “isn’t invented here.” Balance this with a healthy realization that just because they are an external source doesn’t mean they are always right either. Use it as another input to keep the scales balanced. 

Be aware of the challenge to balance creativity and process discipline. Take action throughout the process to ensure balance is maintained, and keep an attitude of open-mindedness and a researcher’s curiosity.