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Rational creativity: The key to unlocking innovation

By Constanza Lobo-Guerrero Rodríguez | December 8, 2022

The key to unlocking innovation is building teams of both creative and rational thinkers who collaborate through the innovation process.
Work Transformation|Employee Experience

Do you think innovation is equal to creativity? Creativity is about generating original, unimaginable and inventive ideas and concepts. Innovation is about implementing and executing them — converting those creative ideas into a successful business or something customers will want to buy (products or services) or adhere to (methods, strategies, theories, etc.).

But if creativity is the precursor of innovation, can only creative people innovate? Does that mean that others don’t stand a chance when it comes to innovation? Again, the answer is no. Innovation requires both rational and creative thought to succeed.

It is widely believed that creativity sits at the other end of the scale to rationality.

  • Rational thought is based on the ability to tie information from different sources (facts, structured and unstructured data) and apply reasoning and logic to draw sensible conclusions.
  • Creativity is less about facts and more about emotions. Creative people are typically playful characters who can turn intuition into magical new ideas that no one previously thought of.

People often think of themselves as being either rational or creative, but the reality is we all have a bit of both. While we may be predominantly one or the other, we all have two hats: the rational hat and the creative hat.

The key to unlocking innovation is building teams of both creative and rational thinkers and encouraging them to wear both hats through the innovation process in a term we like to call rational creativity.

Rational creativity’s role in the innovation process

Phase 1: Analyzing the facts

The first phase of the innovation value chain is exploring different customer trends, market research and macroeconomic tendencies. In this phase we need:

  • Rational thinkers to analyze the facts and turn them into key insights that will narrow down the areas of focus.
  • Creative thinkers will help us create connections between insights and join concepts that would apparently have nothing to do with each other to eventually identify a gap, a problem that is unsolved or an enhancement of an existing solution, service, product or method.

As experienced innovators, we know that not all innovations need to be breakthrough. Innovation can also be incremental and introduce a different way of doing something that adds value.

Phase 2: Finding solutions

Rational creativity kicks in again when we move to the next phase of the innovation process and imagine potential solutions to our identified problem. Rational thinkers often fear group brainstorming and working with sticky notes. They feel like a fish out of water without a structured process. While we need creative minds to come up with the big ideas, we also need rational thinkers to ground those ideas and work out a way to make them feasible and desirable. If a client won’t want to buy it or use it, it’s not innovation. Creativity is great, but without rationality it will never become innovation.

Phase 3: Testing assumptions

The rulebook of design thinking says that once we have an idea we want to develop, we must first test the assumptions we have made to confirm we are focusing on the right problem to solve, and we have an idea that will actually solve it.

Testing assumptions is a process that needs both rationality and creativity. It needs rational creativity. Here our creative thinkers will help break patterns of what feels and seems right. Identifying all the things we may have taken for granted requires thinking outside of the box or being counterintuitive.

Our rational thinkers will behave like scientists and find evidence that will either confirm or negate our identified assumptions. This evidence will be the key to move forward in our innovation journey as it will open one of three doors:

  1. The evidence suggests you are going down the right path and should continue in your journey to development.
  2. The evidence suggests there is potential in your solution, but you should make changes to find a new direction that will enable you to achieve your goal. This is referred to as a pivot.
  3. The evidence suggests you are focusing on the wrong problem or solution. The problem may not be big enough to be worth your time. It may not even be a problem in the first place. Or the client may not see the value in your solution. Or worst of all, the innovator's nightmare: The solution doesn’t solve the problem. This is when you learn fast and drop the idea.

The testing phase of the innovation value chain is the central point for the rational side of our brain as it is all evidence based. This phase is critical to understanding whether you should continue moving forward. So if you didn’t enjoy the brainstorming part of the innovation process, plough through and demonstrate the power of rationality here.

However, your creative thinkers also have a role to play in looking for alternatives when you discover that your tests don’t come back with the evidence you expected. Your creative thinking will allow you to look for information beyond what is explicit to explore alternatives "out of the box" and improve the solution to make it more solid or to solve more problems than initially identified.

Phase 4: Building and launching

After testing, we move on to the build and launch phase, which again requires the rigor of rational thinking to confirm that the solution we are building meets the needs of users. In this case:

  • The creative thinkers can help in the design of the experience of the product
  • The rational thinkers can help to land the output and make it tangible

During the launch phase, the rational thinkers will look for marketing, sales, distribution and process monitoring mechanisms for continuous improvement, while your creative thinkers can help you think of new product/solution enhancements, marketing channels and loyalty strategies.

How do we build the perfect rational creative team?

To build the perfect rational creative team, look for profiles with different backgrounds and incorporate both people who know about the topic and those who do not to include complementary perspectives. By incorporating creative and rational profiles and negotiating ways of working, the team will feel comfortable in a changing and flexible environment.

It is also critical to remind team members of the roles they each play on the innovation process. We should never forget the big picture and recognize the effort and contribution of each person to keep motivation high and progress underway. In essence, rational and creative thinkers are not just complementary but critically necessary for innovation to succeed. We should all work on nurturing both sides of our brain to apply rational creativity and unlock the power of innovation.


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