Many firms tend to mix the terms and concepts of creativity and innovation. There is a view that catering for creativity automatically makes innovation happen. In this post Susanna Bill compares the works from three different authors about the factors influencing a creative and innovative climate. What can be learned?

Many firms express a need to become more creative. However when digging deeper into their thinking, it often ends in more innovation rather than more creativity. I get the feeling that they have the terms mixed up and believe that catering for creativity will automatically create innovation. Today I’ll take a plunge into the research to see if catering for creativity indeed means achieving innovation.

Teresa Amabile is a well-known professor and regular contributor to Harvard Business Review and does research in design thinking and creativity. Göran Ekvall has studied management and government organizations and created a widely used questionnaire, which measures whether an organizational climate is creative/innovative or not. Nils-Eric Sahlin takes his stand in philosophy and acting in research communities, as a professor in Ethics in medicine. All of them suggest a set of characteristics that influences a creative environment. To Ekvall factors like idea time, challenge, playfulness, risk taking and freedom are highly influential. Amabile points to organizational encouragement, resources and autonomy. Finally to Sahlin, being part of a community, cultural differences, generosity and qualifications are needed for creativity.

Ekvall makes no distinction between creativity and innovation, claiming that the factors he identified influence both innovation and creativity. Such grouping could suggest that creativity and innovation go hand in hand. Or that one must take the results of his questionnaire with caution. Amabile on the other hand points to the need for creativity to get innovation, suggesting that a creative climate has in fact bearing on the outcome, i.e innovation.

Influencing factors of a creative environment

Time is a common area in all three papers. Sahlin for example stresses that time is crucial for establishing trust and understanding other cultures. Ekvall is the most explicit one pointing at idea time as an influencing factor of innovation and creative climates. For Amabile, time is included in resources. Time or space is indeed important for creativity as well as innovation, both as ”free” time meaning time to let thoughts and inspiration flow freely and “wait” for new connections to be made and as scheduled time, especially for innovation since driving innovation project can be very time consuming and lengthy processes.

Empowerment is strongly acknowledged by the authors. Ekvall talks about the freedom to act autonomously. Amabile too explicitly addresses freedom and tie it to ownership of a challenge or a problem. To Sahlin empowerment comes in the form of the organization not setting specific details but stay on a more general goal orientated level. I call it empowerment because for freedom to function, management need to step back and empower subordinates to decide and act.

Trust too is addressed. Trust is, as explained above tightly connected to empowerment. To Amabile trust is implicitly addressed in the organizational encouragement of risk taking whereas Ekvall and Sahlin both point at trust as such as the basis for creative work.

On the negative side structure is a strong inhibitor. Structure imposes control, which impedes the free mind needed for creative work. Ekvall´s study show that a leadership based on control and task has negative impact on the creative/innovative climate. Amabile suggests that a controlling management style is discouraging for the intrinsic motivation needed for curiosity and exploration. Sahlin shares experiences in environments where members have felt looked in or victimized as well as the problems of a guru killing all signs of creativity.

So what do I make out of this? It is interesting to see that all three authors come to similar conclusions about influencing factors of a creative environment, since they address creativity from three quite different stand points. The influencing factors that all three authors mention are nowadays well-known. I do however find it confusing that Ekvall uses creativity and innovation as a bundle, especially since the questionnaire is quite spread in the industry. Getting scores suggesting a creative environment, (which I think his questionnaire addresses rather than an innovative environment when compared to the other authors who explicitly addresses a creative environment only) may trick firms into believing that innovation will come automatically.

Creative environments are not necessarily innovative.

Catering for creativity does not automatically create innovation. In order for ideas to become innovation an organizations needs structures and processes in place that are different from ones needed for creativity. Also, creative environments are not necessarily innovative. Take the studio of an artist for example. Or my kitchen. I may be very creative in what I put into the pots and casseroles but that does not necessarily make me innovative. If the artist invents a new method for mixing colors, which induces change in his or her community, or if I introduced my creative dish to a larger circle than my closest dinner guests, innovation is present as well. Doing so demands supplemental skills compared to the creative act. More care is needed when using the terms creativity and innovation interchangeably.

By Susanna Bill

About the author

Susanna is the former Head of Innovation at Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications. In 2009 she founded Sustenance AB and since then shares her time between advising corporate leaders in how to make innovation happen by strengthening the innovation capabilities of their organizations, and pursuing a PhD at the department of Design Sciences at Lund University, focusing on the social processes that are beneficial for the innovation capabilities of self organizing teams. Susanna is a sought after speaker and panelist and the moderator of Innovation in Mind conference.


Amabile, Teresa. M, Conti, Regina, Coon, Heather, Lazenby, Jeffrey, Herron, Michael. (1996) Assessing the work Environment for Creativity The Academy of Management Journal, Vol 39, No 5: pp 1154-1184

Ekvall, Göran. (1996). Organizational Climate for Creativity and innovation. European journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. 5(1), 105-123

Sahlin, Nils-Eric. Creative Environments.