What does it mean to be innovative in the 21st century? What does it mean to be creative in the 21st century? What interventions help facilitate innovation?

Researchers Amabile and Van de Ven view innovation (that which is tangible, adds value to a people or a process and that may cause disruption to others) as the implementation of creative ideas. Creativity, however, must be both novel and useful. We also know that different cultures and/or organizations encourage or restrain creativity. While trying to define the psychological constructs of innovation or creativity might be interesting, a more compelling discussion involves the role of innovation within organizations.

Only a few centuries ago, to be called an “innovator” would have been looked upon unfavorably by society and one’s peers. In fact, a challenge to the existing paradigm might have been viewed as a crime. In 1633, Renaissance genius Galileo Galilei, was found “vehemently suspected of heresy” and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life because of his support of heliocentrism (the theory of the planets revolving around the sun) and the theory of tides (evidence of the motion of the earth).

Fast forward to the 19th and 20th centuries where the Industrial Revolution sparked innovations leading to mass production, new technologies and new markets. Furthermore, time could be manipulated as a resource resulting in increased volume of goods, higher efficiency of production and lower consumer costs.

It was not until the 1930’s, when Austrian sociologist and economist Joseph Shumpeter spoke of the “Wild Spirits” as people, who would redefine the world. He envisioned a time when education would be so accessible that the world of work would fundamentally shift. Shumpeter firmly believed that creativity and innovation were functions of the individual—who one day would be valued as much more than a resource or input into a system.

It would take six more decades before the term disruptive innovation would become widely discussed in the 1990’s and beyond. Until then, organizational innovation was very management-controlled and internally-driven. Nonetheless, the shift in psychology during those same decades set the stage for a convergence between the worlds of innovation and social scientists. Today, our world is vastly different from the one Galileo knew; we actively seek out innovators and ways to keep them engaged. Crowdsourcing/funding, web-based productivity applications, SaaS idea management systems, and incentivized idea generation websites that connect global problem-solvers to organizations—are just some of the radically evolving technologies at our finger tips.

Factors to Consider

For creativity to be translated into an innovation, it requires teamwork, a supportive culture, strong leadership and clear goals. Why then, are some organizations more innovative than others?

Organizational leaders require support in creating an inclusive culture and innovative environment. It can be arduous work but this process must go beyond discussion of profits and metrics. Only then can innovation become sustainable. Psychologists can facilitate this shift. Many businesses today have grasped the importance of understanding the concepts of individuality, development and teaming, but they are still grappling with how to balance the needs of individual identity and development against team and organizational mandates.

Why should we even be concerned about innovation in organizations? We all know the answer to that. Innovators/Wild Spirits change the course of organizations and society by offering new solutions to address age-old problems. New solutions lead to new benefits and discoveries. Technology and knowledge are growing at immense rates and to stand still means to miss opportunities for growth and change.