Do You Want to Be an Innovation Leader? Do These 3 Things.

February 14, 2020

by Dr. Roger Firestien

Innovation is a competitive business weapon.

The organizations that will survive and thrive over time are NOT the ones with the deepest pockets, but the ones that can unleash and apply the creativity of their workforce.

Innovative thinking is not something that can be mandated or delegated, so leaders must first develop their own creative ability before leading their organizations to create breakthroughs.

As a leader, how do you develop the ability to create ideas on demand?  In my 40+ years in the field of creativity and innovation, it has been my experience that there are three things that are crucial to becoming deliberately creative.

  1. Make sure you are solving the RIGHT problem.
  2. Generate lots of ideas so that you can choose the best ones.
  3. “FORCE connections” to create new ideas.

#1  Solve the RIGHT problem.

Most people associate creative thinking with generating lots of ideas. However, I have found that the most important stage of the creative process is where the real problem is identified.

We have been taught that the initial impression of a problem is the best definition of the problem. We have good reason for this — school already sets up the problem for us. 2+2? 4. What is the capital of Poland? Warsaw.

As a leader, it is critical to step back and challenge your initial impression of what you think is the problem. This is not generating ideas. Generate ideas after you have clearly identified the best problem to solve.

It does no good to generate lots of ideas for solving the wrong problem. That’s why we must spend time coming up with a variety of different ways to define the problem. Then you can generate solutions for the best definition of the problem.

How do you identify the real problem? Ask creative questions.

Keep this in mind: the language you use to describe a problem is going to determine whether you create a good question, a bad question or a creative question. It also dictates the kinds of solutions you generate.

For example, “We don’t have enough money.” Good or bad question?

Answer: Bad question. In fact, it’s a statement.

When you hear that statement, your brain says, “Alright, we don’t have any money.” Decision made. Move on.

“How might we raise the money for this project?” “How might we reduce the cost of this project?”

Good and creative questions. Questions framed in this way provoke your mind to search for solutions. They tell your brain to begin to look for ideas.

Describing a problem as, “We don’t have enough money,” blocks your thinking and sends a message to your brain — “there aren’t any ideas out there, don’t bother looking.”

To generate creative questions, use these phrases:

How might…

How to…

What might be all the ways to…

In what ways might I…

When you are redefining the problem, you want questions that open up your thinking.

A creative question puts forth what you want to create. Not what you want to avoid.

#2 Generate lots of ideas so that you can choose the best ones.

How do you do that?  Defer judgment and set an idea goal.

Defer Judgment: The most important behavior to practice when you are generating ideas is to deliberately separate your imaginative thinking from your judgmental thinking. Don’t judge your ideas while you are generating them.

Because an idea is just an idea.

It is not an action.

It is not a decision.

It is not a conclusion.

It’s just an idea. That’s it.

Write down every idea. Don’t try to change it or modify it. Just write it down. Judge your ideas after you have generated them, not while you are generating them.

Set an idea goal: Do you have to come up with hundreds of ideas to get a breakthrough? It all depends on the kinds of ideas you want.

If you want to find ways to improve the way you are currently doing business you will need fewer ideas than if your goal is to completely redefine the nature of your business or your life. We can’t precisely predict the number of ideas you will need to get a new insight, but setting an idea goal helps.

Between 40-50 ideas is a reasonable goal if you want to generate ideas to improve your current practices. More than 50 ideas will help you begin to really stretch your thinking. But if you want to completely redefine the work you are doing and create some disruptive ideas, a goal of 100 ideas or more is not unreasonable.

In years of  analyzing hundreds of idea-generating sessions, I found a trend that emerged. It was the ⅓ – ⅓ – ⅓  principle.

Let’s say your goal is to generate 40 ideas for solving a problem.

The first 10-12 ideas usually don’t produce any breakthroughs. These ideas are the ones that people have thought of before. The silly ideas will surface from about idea 12 to 24. Finally, new ideas and insights typically occur after idea 30.

To take this principle a bit further, the first third tend to be the obvious and incremental ideas, the second third are the ridiculous and sometimes brilliant ideas and the last third are the game changers and disruptors.

It has been my experience that a group of 7 to 8 people trained in Creative Problem-Solving methods can easily generate 100 ideas in about 10-15 minutes.

So, what is the bottom line? If you are consistently generating 10-12 ideas in your idea generating sessions and you think you are getting creative, you’re not.

The creativity comes in the stretch. The innovation comes in the stretch. Go for the third 1/3. You will be glad you did.

#3 “Force connections” to create new ideas.

Most breakthroughs come by connecting things that are not usually considered connected. Often these connections occur as if by chance. You are working on a tough problem, you are stymied for a solution, so you take a step back. Then, you see something unrelated to your problem and you make a connection. Voila!

Unfortunately, you had to wait to make that connection. What if you could make those connections on demand? In the world of Creative Problem-Solving, we have a technique for this. It is called Forced Connections.

Forced Connections is the essence of creativity; the practice of combining ideas that don’t appear to be related in a new way. This method helps you get ideas flowing when you’re stuck.

Here is how it works:

1. Consider the problem you are trying to solve.
2. Pick an object or situation that is completely unrelated.
3. Find or “force” a connection between the problem you are working on and the seemingly unrelated object. The result of this “forced” connection is a new idea.

Here are three examples of making connections to create new ideas.

The connection that inspired the original Nike waffle trainer sneaker was, yes, you guessed it, a waffle iron.

The connection that led to the pacemaker was a flashing traffic hazard signal.

And the connection that led to the printing press was a wine press.

The next time you get stuck when you are generating ideas, just look around. Inspiration for new ideas is everywhere.


Dr. Roger Firestien, author of Create In A Flash: A Leader’s Recipe For Breakthrough Innovation, has taught more people to lead the creative process than anyone else in the world. He is senior faculty at the Center for Applied Imagination at SUNY Buffalo State and president of Innovation Resources, Inc., an innovation consulting firm. For more information about Roger, please visit