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How to Come Up With a Brilliant Idea

By Caitlin Elsaesser
In competitive environments, businesses need fresh, creative ideas to stay on top. Unfortunately, it can seem like coming up with a brilliant new idea is a matter of luck or talent -- neither or which you have, especially when you need it most.

Brothers Kevin and Shawn Coyne think otherwise. In their new book, "Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas," the authors lay out a method for generating new ideas that anyone can learn.

Business owners often fail to come up with great ideas because they are using the wrong approach -- too broad and unfocused -- say the authors. According to their book, two principles lead to fruitful idea generation: asking the right questions and adding enough structure to focus efforts.

While at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, Kevin worked on a project to improve the firm's own ability to generate ideas. He looked at extremely successful businesses: ones that had either reshaped the entire industry or went from zero to a billion dollars in sales in under six years.

In 42 of the 43 businesses, says Shawn Coyne, "the founder had asked a single question at outset -- or could have asked a certain question -- that would have led you to same idea."

Arm & Hammer Baking Soda is one of the authors' model companies. Until the early 1970s, according to Shawn, Arm & Hammer was mostly used for baking. Then the company asked, "Who uses our product in surprisingly large quantities and how can we get more people to use our product that way?" When the company noticed a small number of customers using its product to deodorize refrigerators or to aid in washing clothes, it created a campaign to encourage customers to expand their use of baking soda. Today, the majority of its business comes from these other uses, he says.

The brothers deduced a set of guidelines based on such examples that can help other businesses come up with similarly groundbreaking ideas:

  • Acknowledge your constraints upfront. Brainstorming often fails because it is too unfocused, scattering participants' creative energy. In the real world, constraints exist.
  • Ask focused questions. A good question forces you to look at a problem from a different angle. Instead of asking an overly broad question such as "How can we increase profits?" ask a more focused question like, "What's the biggest hassle customers face when using products/services in our category, and how could we eliminate that hassle (in ways that others haven't done already)?"
  • Don't assume that you (or your staff) can't come up with creative ideas. The stereotype that some people are analytical and others are creative, but that people can't be both, is not true. These are complementary forces that work together to produce better ideas. One helps you evaluate whether ideas are good or bad, while the other gives you perspective to help identify a new category of ideas.
Shawn says that the brainsteering method can be used for all types of businesses, but he has one note of caution. "If you are not willing to put real time and energy into brainsteering, don't waste your time," he says.
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