Innovative ideas feed the entrepreneurial fire, making the creation of new products and services possible and ultimately growing and boosting business. While conceiving breakthrough business ideas is not an exact science, there are steps you can take to nurture the process.
1. Ask leading questions. Encourage game-changing ideas by asking yourself questions that lead to more questions and then ultimately answers, says Ken Moll, founder of Blue Elevator, a business consulting and advising firm. “Questions that ask ‘what if’ are particularly useful,” he explains.
“Focusing on challenging questions is particularly helpful,” adds Marc A. Price, co-founder with Michael F. O’Keefe and Scott L. Girard Jr. of Expert Business Advice, who are also co-authors of the Crash Course for Entrepreneurs series of books. “Asking yourself leading questions, such as what if the cost of materials from your supplier goes up and could a substitute product be introduced, are helpful because they drive contingency planning, which often leads to innovation.”
2. Alter your routine. “One of the best ways to get the creative juices flowing is to extract yourself from your day-to-day routine, both figuratively and literally,” says O’Keefe of Expert Business Advice. “When I’m in the office, doing the same things, working on the same projects and speaking with the same people, it gets monotonous, and I tend to hit cruise control. I formulate my best ideas and often have more aha moments when I’m away from home, out of the office and disrupting my usual routine.”
3. Listen to your customers. Sometimes a good idea is offered up by a client in need of a certain service or product. Keeping your eyes and ears open is vital, says Girard of Expert Business Advice. “An old proverb once said that you have two ears and one mouth for a reason—so you can do twice as much listening as you do talking. You need to constantly be asking questions, but most importantly, listening to the answers. Feedback can be a great source of ideas and inspiration.”
4. Examine the market. One of the best places to look for breakthrough ideas is right in front of you. “I get my inspiration from industry information,” says Dave Sentenn, founder of Local Monster, a company that shows small businesses how to generate traffic to their websites and convert the traffic to new business. “I try and innovate, or simply improve upon, what’s already working and then ride those trends and needs into a product of my own," he says. "Many of my ideas are not original, but I always try and have a different take on what’s already working.”
In the same respect, Girard suggests examining what hasn't worked for your competitors. “Sometimes the most unique ideas or inspirations come from the failures of your competition,” he says. “It could be they were almost there. So when they fail, ask yourself: Why did that just happen? The right answer may immediately come to you while they’re still trying to pick up the pieces.”
5. Get a fresh perspective. Bouncing ideas off other entrepreneurs also works well, says O’Keefe, who reports that he and his partners come up with their best ideas together. “Sharing ideas, even with business owners in other industries, is bound to broaden your horizons and lead to innovation,” he says.
Seeking counsel with a business adviser can also help you experience a breakthrough, Moll says. “It’s difficult to truly see yourself without some guidance. An objective adviser can steer the process and help you discover your unique value proposition and what will best resonate in the marketplace.”
6. Don’t force it. In this Internet age, instantaneous results are often expected, but creativity can’t be rushed, says O’Keefe. “The best strategy for coming up with new ideas is to not have a strategy for coming up with new ideas. Some of the best ideas throughout human history have materialized from epiphanies."
Brainstorm, but don’t try to dictate innovation by putting a deadline on it. "If you get stuck, relax, go for a run, walk, drive or just remove yourself from your desk," O'Keefe says. "When you come back with fresh eyes, you’re much more likely to get hit by inspiration.”
A freelancer since 1985, Julie Bawden-Davis has written for many publications, including Entrepreneur, Better Homes & Gardens and Family Circle.
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