The differences between imagination, creativity, and innovation

Like any toolbox, our minds have an assortment of tools available for us to utilize whenever we need to.

Included in our mental toolbox are cognitive processes, clusters of which compose of three primary ones involved in ideation: imagination, creativity, and innovative thinking.

Unless we know the differences between the tools at our disposal, we may find ourselves attempting to hammer in a nail using a screwdriver. It might get the job done, but it’s definitely not ideal.

Imagination is about seeing the impossible, or unreal. Creativity is using imagination to unleash the potential of existing ideas in order to create new and valuable ones. Innovation is taking existing, reliable systems and ideas and improving them.

Typically, we often confuse these three for one or the other.

Dreams at night are a type of imaginative thinking; what you see when you dream isn’t really happening, and in most instances what you dream cannot physically happen. A great example of this is a recurring dream I have, where a blue-colored cat teaches me how to fly.

When solving a novel problem at work or school, we rely on creativity to generate an answer or idea for overcoming the problem. We might know what the problem entails, but we can only solve it by combining ideas or diverging from our focus in order to see what we couldn’t see before. Creativity very much deals with reality, but the solutions we generate as a result of creativity are difficult to measure.

Lastly, innovation is what takes place when we look at an existing system or process and find a way to improve it, often utilizing both imagination and creativity.

The biggest difference between each of these is the frame of focus we have when attempting to utilize each.

With imagination, our focus can be on things that are impossible. Creativity requires our focus to be on things that might be possible, but we can’t be sure until we explore them further. While innovation entails being focused on what is right in front of us, something that can be measurably improved in the here and now.

It’s important to know the differences, and to know when you’re using one mode of thinking as opposed to the other, and what the context is for that reasoning.

Where imagination simply requires that we have some context from which to envision an idea, creativity requires that we have knowledge of the idea, motivation and freedom to explore and tinker, intelligence to see what makes the convergence of any set of ideas possible, and then the energy to see the process through.

Innovation takes both creativity and imagination further, focusing on existing systems or ideas that can be evolved naturally.

Where imagination can tell a remarkable story, creativity can make imagination possible. Innovation uses imagination and the power of creativity to measurable improve on what exists today.

If you’re trying to improve a process or idea at work or school, you should focus on thinking with innovation in mind. Innovation is the way to see how something might work in the future.

If, alternatively, you’re looking to generate a new way to solve a problem in your life, utilizing creative thinking is the way to go. Be sure, in those instances, you have everything you need to think creatively.

Lastly, if you want to see things from an entirely different perspective, work to build your imagination.