Paul Witkay in Smart Business: “End ‘Idea’ Block”

August 01, 2012

I admit it — I’m fascinated by stories of breakthrough ideas that transform people, companies, industries and sometimes the world. Where did these brilliant ideas come from? Is it possible to create conditions from which breakthrough ideas happen more frequently and with greater impact?

To answer these questions, I have read hundreds of books on innovation, creativity, strategy, neuroscience, behavior, group dynamics and leadership. I have interviewed the leaders of some of the most innovative organizations in the world and literally thousands of CEOs in most every industry. Although I still consider myself a student of the innovation process, in my observations I’ve repeatedly found certain factors that contribute to generating more “big ideas” more often.

1)  Seek or you won’t find.

The first requirement for finding new ideas is to actually look for them. This sounds basic, but many great ideas are hiding in plain sight until a “genius” is able to see them. Most innovations are simply extensions or combinations of what already exists in one market that are used to create new products, methods or processes in another. Millions of people enjoyed the “Italian coffee barista experience” in Italy before Howard Schultz decided to import it to the U.S. and launch Starbucks. Most great ideas don’t come along simply because we want them to. Instead, it takes tremendous determination and patience to persevere until you’ve found what you’re seeking.

2) Change your routine.

Great ideas don’t typically happen during our normal routines. The brain works most creatively when dealing with surprises. Fresh ideas happen when you’re interacting with people who think differently, in unfamiliar places and cultures, and experiencing new sights, sounds and smells that invigorate the senses. Go out, meet new people, and visit new places.

3) Face new challenges.

Most CEOs are wired to solve problems, and they get great satisfaction in doing so. However, these problems are often solved by applying the knowledge that was gained when solving similar problems in the past. This “best practices” approach fails to produce fresh new ideas, because new ideas occur when the brain is forced to deal with new challenges and situations.

To generate new ideas, it’s best to challenge ourselves with situations we’ve never had to face. Since the Alliance was founded in 1996, we have continued to develop and refine the “Alliance methodology” that forces executives to address a range of unique situations, inspiring new ways of thinking. I have observed that many ideas happen when people think about someone else’s situation and apply this new way of thinking to their own situations.

4) Make use of tools.

I recently was asked to mentor a class of MBA students for their final strategic challenge, which was to provide real-world strategic recommendations for an industry-leading company. Asked to apply everything they’d learned in business school, the students had to decide what the company should do to build a long-term, sustainable advantage in its industry. Using tools such as Michael Porter’s industry analysis, SWOT analyses, competitive mapping and value chains to understand the company’s current position, the students came up with a variety of new ideas. Although the “strategy consultants” were just students (albeit very bright ones), the company received some extremely valuable insights from their fresh, unbiased outsider perspectives.

5) Take a break.

Just as our bodies need to rest after exercise, our brains must also rest. Great ideas generally don’t happen simply by thinking “harder.” Many ideas happen after sleeping on a problem or taking a vacation. The brain continues to work while we relax and is able to make connections that weren’t identified while under stress. If the big idea you seek just isn’t happening, it’s often best to step away from it for a period and just let your brain take a breather. Come back to the problem later and you might be surprised what happens.