There's more confusion around the meaning of the word innovation than the chaos at the airline ticket counter after a cancelled flight. Is there a difference between creativity, innovation, and imagination?
Let's start with imagination. Imagination is the raw material that can be formed into creativity and innovation. Think of imagination as our ability to envision anything new. Imagining the world's biggest skyscraper floating sideways in the Suez Cancel and covered in a 1980s pastel argyle pattern or an oddly shaped goat that can perform graduate-level trigonometry calculations are both examples of imagination. As far as I know, neither of these things exist in the actual world, so the fact that I'm describing them requires me to imagine them.
You'll notice that neither my skyscraper nor goat idea possesses even a shred of utility or value. While both are novel ideas, neither one will win me a Peabody Award. For imagination to move up the food chain into creativity, it must have some inherent value.
When Avi (my five-year-old son) pounds on my piano with the force of a sumo wrestler, he is doing something imaginative but not all that creative. He may play the same number of notes per minute as the legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, but I'm afraid that Avi is not yet threatening Herbie for a gig at Carnegie Hall.
Next, we can define creativity as something that's imaginative (novel, fresh, new) and also has some inherent value. Herbie Hancock carefully selects which notes to play and how to play them, following a specific set of musical guidelines. He also decides what not to play, so his reasoning and judgment are involved as he creates music that will be appealing to others. Avi is more likely to color on the piano with a Sharpie or to explore how his PB&J sandwich may fit nicely between the keys. That's imaginative but not creative.
When creativity graduates to innovation, the element of "utility" enters the picture. In other words, does the creative act produce something useful?
If I dump five buckets of neon paint on my wife Tia's car, that is imagination. But raw imagination without value or utility translates to me sleeping on the couch for six months. Now, if she always wanted a racing stripe on her car and I carefully painted flaming stripes in her favorite color, her desire for novelty combined with my shaky painting skills may qualify as something creative. Here, creativity is in the eye of the beholder. Tia would likely find her newly painted car to be an eyesore, while I may appreciate its artistic value. Creativity is subjective, to be sure, as is the case with music, sculpture, spoken-word poetry, and all other forms of art.
Following this one step forward, if I were able to invent a new paint compound that could change colors based on an electrical current, enabling car owners to choose their paint color each morning with a button on their dashboards, that would qualify as innovation. It would be useful, and the profits could help me fund some much-needed painting lessons.
Imagination = any new idea
Creativity = a new idea that has some value, artistic or otherwise
Innovation = a creative idea that has utility
Said differently, it all begins with imagination. Which leads to creativity. Which leads to innovation.