Tag Archives: Ken Robinson

Design, Imagination, Creativity and Innovation – How they all Fit Together

Imagination and Creativity Illustrated: Mark Twain at his Writing Desk

Imagination and Creativity Illustrated: Mark Twain at his Writing Desk

These four words today are used often. They’re used interchangeably and some say they’re overused. But they’re also here to stay. So it would be good to get to know them better. Here’s a quick look at how leading experts have defined them.

Design – and Design Thinking

Tim Brown, David Kelley and Tom Kelley from design firm IDEO have been leaders in the movement that transformed “design” as artistic work into “design thinking” as a process. Here is how they describe design thinking:

“Design thinking is a way of finding human needs and creating new solutions using the tools and mindsets of design practitioners.” “Being human-centered is at the core of our innovation process. Deep empathy for people makes our observations powerful sources of inspiration.” Design thinking is thus “a methodology … [it is] our process for creativity and innovation.” 1

To produce design-driven innovation, IDEO developed their methodology into a 4-step process: 1. Inspiration – which is primarily the step of “connecting with the needs, desires, and motivations of real people [to help] inspire and provoke fresh ideas”; 2. Synthesis – which is the challenge of “sense-making” – reframing the problem and observations to identify the possible solutions; 3. Ideation and Experimentation – the step of testing, experimenting and finalizing; and 4. Implementation.


In his book Out of Our Minds, Sir Ken Robinson broke the whole process down into three parts: imagination, creativity and innovation.  Here’s how he described imagination:

“Imagination is the source of our creativity”.  Indeed, “every uniquely human achievement in every field” is the “product of the human imagination.” It’s “the ability to bring to mind things that are not present to our senses. We can imagine things that exist or things that do not exist at all.” It is the “primary gift of human consciousness.” In imagination “we can anticipate many possible futures.” The imagination “liberates us from our immediate present circumstances and holds the constant possibility of transforming the present.” 2

Imagination and creativity “are not the same thing,” Robinson stresses. “Creativity is a step further on from imagination,” and this leads to …


Creativity is a step further on from imagination, because it involves a lot more than just being imaginative. It is:

“the process of having original ideas that have value.” Being creative “involves doing something. It would be odd to describe someone as creative who never did anything. … Creativity involves putting your imagination to work. In a sense, creativity is applied imagination.” 3

Creativity is thus a process, and Robinson says the three key words in the definition are process, original, and value. The process, simply put, is about generating ideas and then sifting the ones that are original and have value from those that don’t.

How does this differ from innovation? “Innovation is applied creativity,” he says, which leads to …


According to Robinson:

“Innovation is the process of putting new ideas into practice. … By definition, innovation is always about introducing something new, or improved, or both and it is usually assumed to be a positive thing.” 4

Peter Drucker, in The Discipline of Innovation defined innovation in similarly broad terms:

“What all successful entrepreneurs have in common is … a commitment to the systematic practice of innovation.” It is the “specific function of entrepreneurship, whether in an existing business, a public service institution or a new venture” Innovation is thus “the effort to create purposeful, focused change in an enterprise’s economic or social potential.” 5

In both definitions, innovation clearly is not just new products or inventions: it’s bringing about purposeful, focused change that has value in practice, in any sphere of society.

Putting It All Together

Putting all the above together, what the above definitions have in common is that innovation is a process.

Whether you call it design thinking or some other term, it’s the process of transforming ideas from your imagination into a creative output or solution that has value and thus amounts to an innovation.

What’s the upshot? The simple upshot is that everyone already has  the first two: You already have an imagination. And you already have a process (it’s whatever you do routinely each day).

The question is whether you are tapping your imagination to  actually become creative, and whether you’re using that creativity to produce new solutions that have value. In other words, whether you learned … to think like an innovator. It’s a choice we all make, as individuals, and as a society, every day.





  1. Tom Kelley and David Kelley, Creative Confidence (New York: Random House, 2013), pp. 21-25
  2. Sir Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds (UK: Capstone Publishing, 2011), pp. 141-42.
  3. Out of Our Minds, p. 142.
  4. Out of Our Minds, p. 142.
  5. Peter F. Drucker, “The Discipline of Innovation” (Harvard Business Review).

Thomas Friedman: We Need to Create More Jobs … “more Steve Jobs”

In 2010, IBM interviewed over 1,500 CEOs and leaders, and they overwhelmingly “selected creativity as the most important leadership attribute.” Why? Because “creative leaders invite disruptive innovation, encourage others to drop outdated approaches, and … consider previously unheard-of ways to drastically change the enterprise for the better, setting the stage for innovation that helps them engage more effectively with today’s customers, partners and employees.”

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote recently that the US economy needed more jobs – “more Steve Jobs.” Friedman argued that “without inventing more new products and services that make people more productive, healthier or entertained — that we can sell around the world — we’ll never be able to afford the health care our people need, let alone pay off our debts.” In another recent piece, Friedman argued that if anything today, young people need to innovate their own career, not just look for a job: “my generation had it easy. We got to “find” a job. But, more than ever, our kids will have to “invent” a job.”

In 2006, on the education front, famed expert Sir Ken Robinson called for nothing less than a “revolution” in education and to teach creativity in schools in the same way we teach literacy. He continues to call for these changes.

In late 2013, President Obama re-invigorated his call for greater innovation, joining the campaign by CODE.org to promote technical education and learning computer language, saying in his video statement, “don’t just buy a new video game, make one … don’t just download the latest app, help design it …”.

What does it really mean to think like an innovator? What exactly are the innovator’s skills, and do we really need to learn them?

 'A Few Good Innovators' - Clockwise from top left: Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Steve Jobs, Albert EinsteinFirst, let’s clarify that we are talking about innovators, not solely inventors. The difference may seem subtle yet is massive. Steve Jobs was an innovator, not the inventor. He brought about change. He hired and worked with  inventors, but Jobs was the innovator.

If you look at just about any good innovator, you find they generally have these seven significant abilities:

  • Creative AND Practical: Comes up with good ideas that are both creative and surprisingly practical, and thus has an entrepreneurial mindset;
  • Focused: Stays focused on getting to a successful, positive result that works;
  • Emotionally Attuned: Deeply understands people and their needs (often better than the people themselves) and thus comes up with new ways to meet those needs;
  • Collaborative: Is not at all a lone wolf or lone genius, and in fact is surprisingly collaborative, shares ideas and builds teams;
  • Failure is Feedback: Readily and happily looks at initial failure as mere feedback and readily corrects course accordingly;
  • Positive and Resilient: Stays surprisingly positive, even when all looks overwhelming or gloomy;
  • Finishes: Ultimately persists to produce a final product that is ‘shipped’ – either brought to market, sold, or implemented successfully.

Do we need more people with these skills? It should be obvious that just about every job and career today cries out for more people with these talents.

At the beginning of this year, in Canada, the Toronto Star designated 2014 the “Year of the Idea.” The reason? In its editorial, the Star described the landscape of realities, from mind-numbing traffic to crumbling infrastructure to growing inequality, and said the “cure is a fresh injection of inspiration, and that comes through bold ideas and shrewd innovation.” With the initiative, the Star is aiming to “canvass everyone … in search of fresh vision for this city and practical ways to mend its tattered urban fabric.”

Yet the biggest surprise of all is that most of the skills of a good innovator are still not clearly understood let alone taught formally anywhere. How do we expect all this innovation to happen if we don’t teach people the skills they need to successfully innovate? There isn’t another area of life or business where we expect people to perform a task but don’t provide them with the skills and training to do so. In this case, the task is innovating – and doing so on a grand scale never encountered before in history.