How to Generate Innovative Ideas

November 28, 2008

Posted in Small Business.

What’s the difference between inventors Leonardo Da Vinci and Thomas Edison?

Da Vinci created. Thomas Edison innovated. Edison (and his team) methodically processed hundreds or thousands of options for filament materials until they arrived at the best result. They prototyped, tested, revisited, and revised.

keep-crossing-fingers.jpg(Flickr Photo by Sam the sham)

Innovation isn’t luck. It’s a process. Even when the figurative light bulb pops on, the idea needs nurturing and development before it can be carried out.

The Ground Rules of Innovation

  1. Generate ideas first, evaluate ideas later.
  2. There are no bad ideas. The worst ideas are often stepping stones to good ideas.
  3. Nobody owns an idea. Evaluate ideas on their merit, not based on who came up with them.
  4. Be inclusive.
  5. Maintain the team.

The Right Team

Who can be innovative? Everyone. Creativity can come from the most unlikely people, given the environment and framework. It’s better to be inclusive. Innovation requires different thinking, and an approach from the outside is a great way to help spur a change of perspective.

More importantly, the team needs to work well together. If team members don’t value each others’ ideas, refuse to contribute, or overpower the other members, remove them. Get the right people on your team, and get rid of the wrong ones.

The Process of Innovation

A process can draw innovative thinking out of the furthest corners of our minds. It’s an iterative process: one idea builds on the last.

Step 1: Start with Something

Take something familiar and start there. What could you do to change it? What would make it better? What might improve on it? It’s really hard to start from scratch. A blank canvas is creation; innovation is about incremental improvement. A starting point gives you something to react to, to build upon.

Let’s imagine we’re starting with a simple square. Changing a square is easy – add some colors, change the width of the lines, etc.

Step 2: What are the factors?

Identify the individual factors that make up your starting point. List them all out.

  • A square has four sides
  • Connected at 90 degree angles
  • The sides are all equal in length
  • The inside of the square can be filled with color
  • The square can be rotated to any angle

Get as detailed as possible. Don’t take anything for granted, such as the fact that a square is two-dimensional.


Step 3: What factors could you change?

Go through your list of factors and ask how you might change them. How would it affect the square? Could you combine these changes?

Obviously, we could switch up the colors and lines, as we figured above. But we could also change the length of the sides (a rectangle), angles (a parallelogram or trapezoid), or replace the colors with a texture or anything you like. Let’s add another side (a pentagon).

Step 4: Go nuts

What about the off-the-wall ideas? Here’s your blank slate. You’ve already identified incremental improvements, but you’re not limited to small changes anymore. What huge changes or new ideas could you try?

So forget about our square. Let’s throw a bunch of sides in there, and make it three-dimensional. Let’s add gradients and make it bigger. A little big of texture… And voila: dodecahedron!

Application: The Real World

It’s important to apply this process within the real world. Combine your idea generation with research, customer input, and testing. Prototype, apply, revisit, and revise. Edison’s team would revisit their experiments and tests once they acquired new information.


Much of this post is borne out of a fantastic seminar put on by Linkage. I’ve spent a month kicking these ideas around and letting them settle before trying to share them.