6 Unexpected Places to Look for Innovative Ideas

Top innovation consultants share their surprising tactics for thinking more creatively and generating great ideas.
January 29, 2014

Want to grow your business in 2014? When it comes to gaining market share and outperforming the competition, the key is innovation.

So how can you create new products or services that will turn your customers into evangelists? And where should you look for those breakthrough ideas?

Here are six tips from prominent innovation consultants to help you flex your creative muscles:

1. Visit an art museum. “Art museums take experiences of the world and capture them in new ways that express the human experience and human potential,” says consultant and speaker Erica Dhawan. “They’re also an unexpected place to match historical realities with ‘new ideas,’ allowing innovators a unique holding place to combine different perspectives. This is why I believe so many companies, like Apple's offices, are designed to feel like an art museum.” Surrounding yourself with art can open up new worlds and new perspectives.

2. Empower your employees. Almost every company has some variation of the “suggestion box.” Come up with the best idea, and you can win a $10 gift card! But that’s not what Charlie Kiefer, co-author of Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future, has in mind when he talks about suggestion boxes.

Instead, he says, “Encourage [employees] to find something that would both benefit the firm or its customers and is within their own sphere of influence. Then take a small, safe action in favor of that idea and report the results of the action. This differs from a suggestion box in that the subsequent discussion is around actions taken and the effect they had, not ideas.” Let your employees experiment safely, and then share their knowledge.

3. Take a long drive. Joel Yanowitz, co-founder of Innovation Associates Inc., says it’s important to listen to “those quiet, fleeting thoughts that people have while carrying out routine tasks such as driving, exercising or showering. When asked where they do their most creative, original thinking, many people describe this type of setting. Yet the same people report that they frequently fail to pay attention to and follow up on these ideas.” Don’t let your best ideas get washed away because your brain moved on to something else. Listen carefully and capture them.

4. Go shopping. The grocery store or pharmacy can be a huge source of inspiration, says innovation blogger Deb Mills-Scofield, who also mentors entrepreneurs at Brown University. “I look at very common, everyday things [while] browsing store shelves," she explains. "I look at all the shampoos and see the commonalities in their packaging, marketing, shapes, sizes, as well as the differences. I also ask myself, how could this be improved and how could this be simplified? What does [the product] really need to do instead of what it does? How much of it do I use versus not use?”

5. Find the right metaphor. Mills-Scofield also likes to ponder what she can learn from natural systems. “When I think about networking, I look at how our world is a network,” she says. “There is the network of roots underground, and they tie together to survive and grow. The body is also a series of inter-dependent networks—cardio, renal, respiratory, endocrine, etc. I see the patterns and relationships. I look at systems like education or health care and see how they work or don't and how recombining them could create new solutions.”

In other words, what can you learn about your networking challenge by looking at the human body or a forest? Ponder that long enough, and innovative ideas are sure to come.

6. Freak yourself out. “Seek the discomfort, and find where things don’t feel right,” advises Sasha Strauss, founder and managing director of brand strategy firm Innovation Protocol. Innovation is about creating something new, interesting and valuable. By definition, it hasn’t been done before, so your idea may initially seem out-of-the-box or disruptive. But as long as it doesn’t go too far (harming others or your brand), Strauss believes you should push the envelope. “Incite fear or anxiety,” he says, “and find solutions amidst the discomfort.”

Genuinely innovative ideas aren’t easy to come by, but we can all benefit from them. That’s why it’s important to get in the habit of stretching yourself creatively by putting yourself in new situations that can spark the connections you need. By following these six strategies, 2014 might become your most innovative year yet.

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press), and follow her on Twitter.

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