“Innovation is Not Creativity” declared Vijay Govindarajan in a post at Harvard Business Review earlier this week highlighting his research into innovation. As part of this research he and colleague Chris Timble polled hundreds of managers about innovation:

Usually, managers equate innovation with creativity. But innovation is not creativity. Creativity is about coming up with the big idea. Innovation is about executing the idea — converting the idea into a successful business.

Govindarajan and Timble focused their research on execution and offered an elegant equation to help illustrate the importance of execution.

Here’s why we worked on execution, as opposed to creativity: We surveyed thousands of executives in Fortune 500 companies to rate their companies’ innovation skills on a scale of one to 10, one being poor and 10 world class. Survey participants overwhelmingly believe that their companies are better at generating ideas (average score of six) than they are at commercializing them (average score of one).

So which is more effective — moving your (already good) creativity score from six to eight or lifting your (very poor) execution score from one to three? Here’s the math using our shorthand, creativity times execution:

Capacity to innovate = 6 x 1 = 6

Capacity to innovate, increasing creativity score = 8 x 1 = 8

Capacity to innovate, increasing execution score = 6 x 3 = 18

It’s no contest. Companies tend to focus far more attention on improving the front end of the innovation process, the creativity. But the real leverage is in the back end.

I really enjoy being on the back end of innovation. We’ve all got lots of big shiny ideas and creative world-changing solutions that never make it past the white board. Real innovation comes when leaders give their people the mandate and the space to execute and deliver. Steve Jobs, who has quite the track-record on innovation, famously said: “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Are you leading or following?

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