10/13/2014 02:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

10 Ways to Jumpstart Innovation


"If you only do what you've always done, you'll only get what you've always got." That pithy argument for original thinking has been attributed to Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, and Mark Twain, just to name a few--but whoever said it was definitely on to something. Innovation, as we all know, is instrumental to success, whether you're running a company, endeavoring to jumpstart a new business, or trying to educate a roomful of wriggling first-graders.

But how do we generate the ideas that innovate? Where does inspiration come from? Jorge Odon's idea for a lifesaving medical device came to him in a dream. Roy Plunkett invented Teflon by mistake. But what if you seek a more reliable source of inspiration? Is there such thing?

In a word: yes. The brain can be trained to think creatively; it can be coaxed toward genius. Below I've outlined ten techniques that foster innovative thinking. Practice them enough, and the brilliant ideas will come: in dreams, in meetings, in the middle of dinner. So start keeping a notebook in your pocket. Your million-dollar idea is out there.

1. Think in metaphors.
Thinking about problems metaphorically moves your thinking from the literal to the abstract, allowing you to see problems--or opportunities--from entirely new angles. Shakespeare didn't write "The world is like a stage"; he wrote "All the world's a stage." [emphasis mine] The meanings are nearly the same, but the impact of the metaphor is much greater. A fresh and startling idea is born: every person is an actor, playing a part that ends only in death. (Sure, that's kind of depressing--but it's also one of his most brilliant and frequently quoted passages.)

2. Think in pictures.
Visual thinking can strip a problem down to its essence, leading to profoundly simple conclusions that ordinary language might not be able to reach. Thinking in pictures isn't just for graphic designers, artists, and illustrators. It's for anyone who can draw a stick figure, an arrow, and a talk balloon. Pick up a copy of The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam to learn a few of the most useful tricks. You'll wonder why more people don't think like Einstein.

3. Start from a different place.
Your brain builds up patterns of experience, which can make it hard to think in new ways. So imagine the worst place you could possibly start, and begin there. Let's say, for example, your task is to negotiate a peace between feuding neighbors. So far no amount of reasoning has been able to bring the two sides together. You could try more reasoning, or better reasoning, or perhaps the threat of lawsuits. But these are likely to cause further entrenchment. So you try starting from a different place. What if you suggest an arm wrestling contest, winner take all? No? How about this? Arm wrestling, and whoever loses buys the other a beer.

4. Poach from other domains.
While stealing is not the same as pure imagination, it still takes a mental leap to see how an idea from one industry or discipline might be used in another industry or discipline. One fine summer day in 1948, amateur inventor George de Mestral took his dog for a walk in the woods. Upon returning, he found his dog and his pant legs covered in pesky burrs. When he put them under a microscope he saw tiny hooks, perfectly suited for attaching themselves to fur and fabric. The result? Velcro.

5. Arrange blind dates.
A prepared mind can make novel connections under the right circumstances. But it's also possible to force connections by introducing two unrelated ideas. Don't fall in love with your first idea. Novelty and innovation are two different things. What do you get when you cross a bank with an Internet café? A shoe store with a charity? A Broadway show with a circus performance? Adhesive tape with a bookmark? You get successful business models like ING Direct, Tom's Shoes, Cirque du Soleil, and Post-it Notes.

6. Reverse the polarity.
Reversing the polarity in an assumption can release conceptual energy. You can start by listing some assumptions about the problem. Then reverse the assumptions to see what happens. Everyone is familiar with the problem of the office kitchen, for example. Let's make some assumptions:
1. Employees don't like doing dishes.
2. It's hard to tell whose dishes are in the sink.
3.The dishes are company property.

Now, reverse the assumptions to see what happens.
1. Employees love doing dishes.
2. It's easy to tell whose dishes are in the sink.
3. The dishes are employee property.

What would it take to make these true? Would employees do their dishes if they had a great music system at the sink? Should items be personalized with the employees' names? Of course, you could just lay down the law and then enforce it. But there are probably better methods that a little creative thinking could uncover.

7. Find the paradox.
If you can describe the central contradiction within a given problem, you're well on the way to solving it. When designer Mitchell Mauk noticed a problem with the storm drains in San Francisco, he took the initiative to propose a solution. The city had been concerned about people dumping motor oils and chemicals into the sewers, where they would flow into the bay and pollute the fish habitats. The usual warnings posted near the drains weren't working. So Mauk asked the question another way. Can the sewer grates and the signs be one and the same? His elegant Gratefish sends an unambiguous message: Whatever you put down the drain goes right into the fish.

8. Give it the third degree.
The questions are endless, but they don't take much time to ask. Who says? So what? What else? Who for? How much? Why now? What else is like this, from which you could get an idea? Is there something similar that you could partially copy? What if this were somewhat changed? What can you eliminate? What can you substitute? Is this the cause or the effect? What if you changed the timing? In whose shoes should you put yourself?

9. Be alert for accidents.
The great thing about creative play is that mistakes don't have consequences. While most of the time you won't find what you're looking for, sometimes you'll find what you weren't looking for, and that can be even better. When Percy Spencer was working on radar for the military, he found a melted candy bar in his pocket, and thus discovered the working principle for microwave ovens.

10. Write things down.
"To hold one idea in mind means to hold a cloud of them," says Kevin Kelly. The value of ideas often lies in their ability to trigger better ideas. If you don't capture them, you can't build on them. When I was a wannabe songwriter in my teens (who wasn't?), I never worried that I might forget a line of melody or snippet of lyric. I told myself if it were that good it would probably come back to me. Conversely, I believed if it didn't come back to me, it probably wasn't that good. There were two flaws in this logic. First, I did forget good musical ideas, and, second, the value of ideas often lies in their ability to trigger better ideas. If you don't capture them, you can't build on them.

These techniques are the simple but powerful tools that encourage creativity and inspiration. And while thinking beyond our comfort zones can feel unnatural, even frightening, it's also one of the most important things we can do for ourselves and the world around us. As King Henry, preparing for battle in Shakespeare's Henry V, says, "All things are ready, if our minds be so." In other words: be brave. Trust yourself. Innovation demands courage--but it's already within you.