The anatomy of creativity: Exploring the elements of innovative ideas

The anatomy of creativity: Exploring the elements of innovative ideas

Published On:
March 14, 2024

Let’s admit it: Defining terms isn’t entertaining, but it’s essential. That’s why I defined the crucial terms creativity and innovation in earlier articles in this blog. To recap, the easiest and most impactful way we can define these two concepts is with the help of two equations — the Creativity Formula and the Innovation Formula:


When looking at these two formulas some days ago, an intriguing question came to mind: What do we get if we take action upon an idea that only connects two of the three conceptual intersections that define creativity? Let’s explore these interesting constellations in today’s article.

a) Novel Original Ideas + Action = Invention

What do we get when we implement an idea that is both new (novel) and unique (original) but does not make meaning or add much value? An invention that, while being the first of its kind, often provides a new solution to a problem that is typically impracticable. Hence, many such inventions do not find practical applications or significantly impact the market or society.

The Mono-Wheel car is a fascinating example of an invention that is both novel and original but has not found widespread, meaningful application in the mainstream transportation sector. This vehicle operates on a single wheel, encasing the rider within its circumference or mounting the rider above or inside the wheel. While its unique structure offers a futuristic aesthetic and an unconventional riding experience, the Mono-Wheel car's stability, safety, and practicality issues in various environments have limited its adoption.

Do you care for more examples of inventions that haven’t taken the world by storm due to a lack of deeper meaning? Take a look at the inventions shown in the images below and ask yourself: Would I want to buy any of these?

b) Novel Meaningful Ideas + Action = Imitation  (Adopted or Copycat Innovation)

When we act upon an idea that is new and valuable but not original, we imitate or copy another innovation. The term “Imitation” recognizes the implemented idea’s newness (novelty, at least for the imitator or imaging company) and its significant impact (meaning) while acknowledging that it’s not the first of its kind (and thus is lacking originality). 

Another way to label this combination is the term “Adopted Innovation.” The notion of adoption highlights that the idea, though not original, has been embraced and implemented in a novel and meaningful way in a new context. As such, an imitation, or adopted innovation, takes an existing idea and replicates it with slight modifications, often to spread its benefits or capitalize on its success. 

We may also refer to such an implemented novel and meaningful idea in a more derogatory way as"Copycat Innovation.” This name emphasizes the lack of originality, suggesting that the innovative effort is primarily focused on mimicking an existing idea without significant modification or improvement, essentially riding on the coattails of the original innovator's success. Fortunately, “People who copy you will always be one step behind,” as the British-Trinidadian award-winning writer Wayne Gerard Trotman correctly notes.

Let’s look at two examples of successful imitations: 

  • When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, it was a groundbreaking moment for the mobile phone industry. The iPhone's design, featuring a large touchscreen with minimal physical buttons, and its integration of a web browser, music player, and phone into a single device, was novel and highly meaningful. It set a new standard for what users could expect from a mobile device: a smartphone featuring a large touchscreen with minimal physical buttons, and its integration of a web browser, music player, and phone into a single device.
    In the subsequent months, numerous mobile phone manufacturers began imitating the iPhone and introducing their own smartphones that shared similar design elements and functionalities, aiming to capture a portion of the rapidly growing new market that Apple had opened. One of the companies that quickly pivoted to focus on touchscreen smartphones was Samsung. The Samsung Galaxy series, launched in 2009, is perhaps the most notable line that was influenced by the iPhone in terms of design and functionality and became the main competitor to the iPhone.
  • Another example of an imitation comes from the realm of social media platforms. First introduced by Snapchat in 2013, Snapchat introduced “Stories,” a novel feature that allowed users to post photos and videos that would disappear after 24 hours. This new concept of ephemeral content significantly departed from the prior permanence of posts on most social media platforms. It introduced a novel and meaningful way for users to share moments from their daily lives without the pressure of those posts staying online indefinitely. Recognizing this novel feature’s popularity and engagement potential, other social media giants like Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp began to incorporate similar elements into their platforms. The imitation of Snapchat's Stories by other social media platforms is a prime example of how a novel and meaningful idea, even if not originally conceived by the imitators, can be adopted and successfully integrated into existing products or services, often leading to enhanced user engagement and growth. These platforms took the core concept introduced by Snapchat and adapted it to fit within their ecosystem.

c) Original Meaningful Ideas + Action = Adaptation  (Adapted or Refined Innovation)

When we activate an original and meaningful idea, even if it isn’t entirely new, we might consider it an “Adapted Innovation.” Here, adaptation suggests modifying or adjusting an existing idea or product in an original and meaningful way that others appreciate. Another way to refer to this situation is “Refined Innovation,” suggesting that we have polished or perfected the idea over time. It acknowledges that while the basic concept might not be novel, the original and meaningful execution of the idea sets it apart, offering a unique contribution that enhances or improves upon existing value differentials. As such, adaptation, or refined innovation, describes the process of taking an existing concept and significantly improving or altering it meaningfully to meet user needs better or address newly emerging challenges.

The evolution of Internet browsers and search engines is a classic example of Refined Innovation. Google was not the first mover in the search engine space. In 1993, Mosaic was the first Internet browser that pioneered the concept of graphical web browsing to a broader audience. It laid the foundation for subsequent browsers by Netscape Navigator, Yahoo!, AltaVista, and Lycos, which paved the way for digital search. However, what ultimately set Google apart and led to its ascendance to market dominance was a unique and more meaningful approach to indexing the web: its PageRank algorithm ranked web pages based on the number and quality of links pointing to them and not on how often a search term appeared on a webpage as the earlier browsers did.

What if all intersections connect and we take action?

When we act upon an idea that is simultaneously novel, original, and meaningful (and thus caters to all three definition aspects of creativity), we arrive at true innovation. We’ve arrived at the desired destination on the right side of our innovation formula: Creativity + Action = Innovation. That’s what Apple created with the iPhone and Snapchat with Stories, and it made them enjoy a premium market position for a certain period before the copycats caught up. As Steve Jobs noted: “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

  • Do you agree with my labeling of the three constellations? If not, what combination would you call differently, and how? And what great case examples of invention, imitation, and adaptation do you fancy?
  • Two sections of my book, The Executive’s Guide to Innovation, detail the essential definitions of creativity and innovation. We will relaunch the book in Q2.2024. Please take a look at our preorder page here and consider leaving your details so we can contact you once it is released.
  • Does your company face a major challenge that requires a breakthrough solution or new approach? Contact us to tell us more about your situation so we can tailor a solution bundle that unties your “Gordian knot.”

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2024. This article is earmarked to be co-published in the Bangkok Post in the coming weeks.