Innovation, creativity, and imagination are not the same thing

Photo by Joshua Fuller

As we launch into a new era of experimentation here at FYI, it’s been exciting to see where we are able to innovate.

It’s also been exciting to see where we tend to get stuck.

For example, we are in the midst of transforming our latest research project into a series of books. The writing process is going well, but we spent eight months trying to come up with a title for the series and we're still struggling.


We have mountains of fresh content and creative ideas. Why are we hitting a wall?

Creative roadblocks happens in our ministries and organizations when we don’t understand how innovation actually works. Most of the time we use words like innovation and creativity and imagination interchangeably, and they are taken to mean the same thing. They are not.

Imagination is the ability to envision the impossible. This is what churches often call “the vision,” an imaginary future version of our ministry and its role in the world. It’s what social researchers call “divergent thinking” because it paints a picture of reality very different from the one we live in. A “visionary” leader’s job is to communicate their imagined version of the world in a way that compels us to act, change, and support it.

Creativity is different. It’s not about the future, it’s about utilizing what we have right now.

Creativity is to create. It’s to do. Creating a youth group means we need young people, a leader, time, space, and the capability to pull it all together. Creating a log cabin means we need wood, tools, a grassy knoll, and a plan for how to bring it all together. The more efficient or novel the creation, the more creativity is required to pull it off.

I like creativity by it’s other name: problem-solving. It’s practical and tangible, not imaginary. It’s the act of making an idea real.

Innovation occurs when you combine imagination and creativity. Dreaming and doing.

My fiancée does this with space. She can fit three truckloads of film equipment onto one truck because she’s able to imagine a new way of organizing it, then problem-solve to actually make it happen. And her innovative way of approaching packing saves us boatloads of time and money.

Innovation occurs when we know both what to do and how to do it. Not only what we want to accomplish, but also how to move forward.

Churches and organizations often make the mistake of labeling their imaginative people as “creative,” and their problem-solvers as “administrative” or something else. But innovation only occurs when we fuse both skillsets together.

As you look forward to the coming ministry year and all the new things you hope to accomplish, make room for both dreaming and doing. Moving forward means not only knowing where you’re going, but also how to get there.