Creativity is probably the most discussed component of innovation.

People and teams want to have more of it. Leaders want to discover how to direct and amplify it. Researchers try to define and measure it. Innovation companies sell their ability to develop it, thereby boosting the quantity and quality of ideas in an organization.

That’s why, when I talk about the seven Cs of innovation, the number one question I’m asked is: Where’s creativity? Why is that not on the list? Isn’t creativity important – required, even – for innovation?

The answer is yes. Creativity is important. But there’s a very good reason it didn’t make it onto my list. Before I explain, let’s see what did, and why.

The Seven Cs of Innovation

Taking inspiration from Sinbad and his adventures on the seven seas, I’ve tried to capture the whole range of levers and enablers teams and leaders need to consider when embarking on innovation initiatives. In no particular order, they are:

1. Consistency
To achieve the outcomes we want to see from ourselves and our partners, we need consistency in the approach, support and delivery from our organization. Short bursts of intensity will produce feel-good metrics, but won’t change our long term direction.

2. Constraint
Constraints drive innovation. If we aren’t challenged by a lack of resources, time or money, then we generally won’t look at new ways of delivery.

3. Continuous Improvement
Not all innovation has to be big and flashy. Doing something a little bit better every time it’s repeated will have the same impact, if not more, in the long run.

4. Collaboration
We don’t have a monopoly on the best people, ideas or processes. We should be looking to work with partners both inside and outside our organizations to get the best outcomes. We shouldn’t be afraid to share our ideas and borrow from others to make our projects a success.

5. Challenge
Everyone in a team should be free to ask questions about why something is done a certain way. The status quo should always be pushed. We can never accept ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it’ as an answer.

6. Celebration
We need to celebrate both the success and failure of ideas. People leave themselves open to criticism by suggesting challenges to the system or a new idea – this should be acknowledged and rewarded.

7. Culture
The Cs above are all about developing a culture where innovation is embraced as part of the natural way of working and embedded in the DNA of the organization. If we get the ethos right and get commitment from the organisation, success will follow.

None of the Cs are individual skills – they are all behaviours or traits that are needed for an individual or organisation to be effectively innovative. Creativity, on the other hand, is a skill. Anyone can learn to be creative. It just takes practice, and that means it is much easier to achieve than the other Cs.

What Is Creativity?

For all the talking we do about creativity, we actually understand very little about it. Our common presumption is that it is a natural talent only some people, especially those in the creative arts, have. But a number of studies show this isn’t the case.

Starting in 1968, George Land and Beth Jarman conducted a creativity test on 1600 children ranging in ages from 5 to 15. The test was originally developed to test creative thinking aptitude in NASA engineers and scientists. The findings of the test were a revelation – 98% of 5-year-olds scored at ‘genius’ level. But only 30% of 10-year-olds and 12% of 15-year olds scored that high. And adults fared even worse: only 2% scored at the ‘genius’ level.

Clearly, creativity is a skill that almost all of us have as children but lose as we become adults. The research concluded that as youngsters we have limited experience to draw on and so use primarily divergent thinking processes – a spontaneous, nonlinear free-flowing exploration of many possible solutions. But as we grow older and have more experience, we start to use more convergent thinking – we follow a particular sequence of logical steps to arrive at one ‘correct’ conclusion. In other words, we seek to be ‘right’ rather than to discover.

Rebuilding our creative muscle

Luckily, creativity is not a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition. Current thinking is that the divergent thinking processes we naturally use as children don’t go away – rather, it’s like an underused muscle. It may be atrophied from lack of use, but with practice we can build it back up again.

This is the challenge that innovation ideation techniques try to address. They generally start by helping adults push past their convergent thinking process and engage the divergent thinking muscles. We may try to change the actual thinking process people use, or define a problem in a way that makes it easier to approach in a nonlinear, less logical fashion.

Understanding creativity as a skill helps us avoid the dreaded ‘innovation theatre’ effect. Holding a hackathon once a year isn’t going to cut it.

If someone suggested you could become a world-class violinist by setting aside one or two days a year to practice, you’d laugh in their face.

Creativity is the same. Like any skill, if you don’t practice it regularly any improvements are lost, and you’re constantly starting from scratch. That’s why consistency makes the list – it is a required behaviour.

As Simon Sinek points out in one of my favorite RSA shorts, organizations love intensity. They like things that are fixed in time, easily measured and highly predictable. The problem, of course, is that intensity works for the short term – we see immediate results, and that makes us feel better. But the results don’t last. They don’t solve our most important challenges. And they certainly don’t result in any type of game-changing innovations.

That’s why a large part of my work as an Innovation Champion is helping teams identify new ideas around their challenges. One of my longer term goals is to improve the overall creativity skill set of the organization through delivering my Culture and Consistency themes. By having regular challenges, and consistent approaches and methodologies, I am aiming to upskill the divergent thinking skills of the organization – whether they realize it or not!

And that’s also why creativity didn’t make my list. It it important to innovation? Yes. But in order to build our creative skills, we need the seven Cs – the behaviours of Culture, Continuous Improvement, Collaboration, Challenge, Celebration, Consistency and Constraint – embedded in our day-to-day.

This is a guest post by Ian Small, Innovation Champion for AECOM’s Civil Infrastructure division. Ian is sharing his This post contains material previously published on LinkedIn here and here.