IPMA International Project Management Association
7 September 2021 / 8:00

Creativity vs Innovation: What matters most in Project Management?

❝ In the changing world, those organizations will thrive the most that have a tangible strategy for the intangible needs of their customers ❞

Creativity and innovation are regarded as the catalysts of growth and prosperity. While both are related concepts, they differ fundamentally. Creativity is about conceiving new ideas. Whereas, innovation is about the implementation of new ideas that generate value for users/consumers or introducing a value-driven change within a system.

Given the above explanation, in hindsight, project management should involve both creativity and innovation as projects are considered to create unique outputs. Creativity for conceiving new ideas to build new products/services, and innovation for implementing the new ideas to create value-driven project deliverables. However, as innovation is not possible without creativity, one would expect creativity to be the core and something that is practiced more than innovation in project management. However, it is not clear if that is the case.

One way to understand and analyze this is to review published work and see where the focus lies. With that in mind, we did a quick search of published academic work across three databases (i.e. ScienceDirect, Emerald, and Google Scholar). To do that, we used two key word combinations: 1) innovation + project management, and 2) creativity + project management.

The results presented below provide some interesting (albeit broad) insights on where we stand when it comes to creativity vs innovation in project management.

1) Innovation + project management

ScienceDirect                14,191   articles

Emerald                          11,000+ articles

Google Scholar             708,000 articles

2) Creativity + project management

ScienceDirect                3,962 articles

Emerald                          3,000+ articles

Google Scholar             129,000 articles

The search output is quite consistent across the three databases. As, we can see that when it comes to creativity, publications are significantly less across the board (e.g. SD – 78% less; Emerald – 73% less; and GS – 82% less). While, this information provides some understanding, it does not provide any conclusive evidence. The noise in the data (in the form of irrelevant articles) needs to be addressed to get a better understanding of creativity vs innovation focus in project management.

Regardless, the search yield points to a potential issue that innovation is a far more researched topic in project management compared to creativity. Obviously, it is not clear why that is the case. But certainly, it raises the question: What matters most in project management? Creativity or innovation?

To answer the question, we need to consider issues from, both, practice and research perspectives and identify factors and triggers that may be contributing to an increased focus on innovation.

Practice-related triggers
From a practice standpoint, innovation(s) could be more palatable for many reasons.

1) First, people working on real life projects may consider it easy to do some innovations in processes and techniques. Given, that project processes and techniques are often very structured and considered as standard ways of working, changing the processes and techniques to drive value is preferred rather than creating new processes and techniques.

2) Second, often product designs and features are improved rather than created from afresh. That may lead people to a focus on design and functional innovations.

3) Third, the tendency to build on existing to reduce time-to-market and complete the project in a short time is another factor that may lead to a focus on innovation rather than creativity.

4) Fourth, the lack of expertise or creative culture is another reason. Organizations may not have the resources and infrastructure to create things from scratch. Given that more than 90-95% of enterprises are small and medium sized, it is logical from both an economic and resource perspective to focus on innovations.

5) Finally, organizations are not isolated entities. They live and breathe in an eco-system. Innovation is often a go-term and good-feel term in all types of eco-systems, so that may also be driving the focus on innovations rather than creativity.

Academic research-related triggers
Given the figures presented above, it seems academia is heavily focusing on innovations rather than creativity. Potentially, there could be several reasons for such a scenario.

1) First, maybe there is a lack of recognition of the distinction between innovation and creativity. Hence, academia is investigating aspects related to innovations in project management.

2) Second, there may be research bias for examining issues related to innovations. Researchers may feel that innovation is a more relatable term. Research subjects will be able to understand innovation and, hence, easy for data collection and publication.

3) Third, because researchers build knowledge on what is known already (i.e. existing literature), the trends in the existing literature may be driving the focus on researching innovations.

4) Fourth, researchers may feel it will be easy to publish their findings when discussing innovations, and hence the focus.

5) Finally, researchers may be affected by the halo effect. Innovation is a buzz word. It is frequently used by all types of businesses. So, the perception of the popularity of innovation may be resulting in a halo effect driving research on innovations.

It is intriguing to find that creativity is a less researched issue in relation to project management. That is despite the fact that projects are expected to create new outputs. The term ‘new output’ may be fuzzy in its meaning, and people can use their imagination to define what ‘new output’ means. Regardless, ‘new output’ can not be a ‘new output’ if there is nothing creative about it.

The fact that innovation is researched more raises several questions. Is it because project organizations tend to be less creative? Is there a lack of expertise and knowledge to create new outputs and, hence, less interest in creativity? Is it due to the halo effect associated with the popularity of the concept of innovation and hence the skewed research focus?

There could be many reasons and triggers that may be resulting in a bigger interest in innovation.  We have looked at some potential reasons from both practice and research perspectives. Obviously, it is difficult to answer the question: what matters most in project management? Is it creativity or innovation? But the issues and reasons discussed in the article will hopefully provide some ideas to consider for further exploration. Needless to mention, the listed reasons are just meant to spur some thought and are neither conclusive nor exhaustive.

© 2021 Jiwat Ram, All Rights Reserved.

photo by: pixabay.com

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Author of this post

Jiwat is a Professor in Project Management. He has considerable experience of working internationally in diverse cultures and business environments.

Jiwat actively contributes to project management community. His work has been published in top scientific journals as well as industry outlets.