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It's Idea Time!
Tips from the experts for generating great ideas 

What does it take to come up with a great idea? How can some people and organizations generate a seemingly endless supply of ideas, while others struggle to come up with anything fresh, creative or out of the ordinary? We put that question to some of the most innovative minds in the world - inventors, artists, writers, business-model makers. Their insights may help you get your own creative juices flowing.

Frederick W. Smith                                                                                                                      
Chairman, President and CEO
FedEx Corp.
Memphis, Tennessee

There are two keys to innovation. The first is the ability to think beyond relatively conventional paradigms and to examine traditional constraints using nontraditional thinking. You have to be able to go outside your own frame of reference and find another way to look at a problem. Before I founded Federal Express, overnight delivery didn't exist on a national scale.

My innovation involved taking an idea from the telecommunications and banking industries, and applying that idea to the transportation business. Using a central clearinghouse, along with a hub-and-spoke system of dissemination, enabled us to deliver, point-to-point, anywhere in the United States - absolutely, positively overnight.

The second key to innovation is the ability to discern the important issues and to keep your real goal in view. I don't think that we understood our real goal when we first started Federal Express. We thought that we were selling the transportation of goods; in fact, we were selling peace of mind. When we finally figured that out, we pursued our goal with a vengeance.

Art Fry
Corporate Scientist
Saint Paul, Minnesota

When I first started telling people about my idea for Post-it Notes, no one understood what I was talking about. People had never heard of a "repositionable note," and they couldn't conceive of such a phenomenon. So, of course, no one believed that there was a market for it. Formal research showed a potential for only about $750,000 worth of business. I had to launch my own campaign to get the project off the ground. I gave away repositionable notes to secretaries and other key people in the company, and I kept track of usage and feedback. If someone felt that the notes were unnecessary, then I'd stop giving away samples to that person. Within a short time, everyone realized how much he or she had come to rely on those notes: They had become addicted to them.

We went through the same process in marketing Post-it Notes. At first, advertising didn't work - because people had no idea what the product was. I had to plead with management not to kill the idea. In the end, we marketed the notes by giving out samples. We realized that people had to try the product in order to appreciate it.

Mary Ellen Heyde
Vehicle Line Director of Lifestyle Vehicles
Ford Motor Co.
Dearborn, Michigan

At Ford, we always try to hire people from diverse backgrounds. We do that because we realize that good ideas come when people with different perspectives work together on the same problem. If you have a diverse workforce, then you know that the customer's point of view will always be represented.

When we created the Windstar minivan, we had a lot of women both on the design team and on the marketing committee - which was good, because mostly women use the Windstar. With the Windstar, we created what we call "sleeping-baby mode" for the overhead light. One of the women on the Windstar electrical team has young children and she said that her car's overhead light always wakes them up after a night drive. So, when we designed the Windstar, we provided an option for having only the floor lighting turn on when you open a door.

Faith Ringgold
Artist and Author
Englewood, New Jersey

The great enemy of creativity is fear: when we're fearful, we freeze up - like a nine-year-old who won't draw pictures, for fear that everybody will laugh. Creativity has a lot to do with a willingness to take risks. Think about how children play. They run around the playground without thinking where they're going. They trip, they fall down, and then they get up again and run some more. They have a wonderful belief: that everything will be all right. They feel capable; they let go; they play. Good businesspeople behave in a similar way. They lose $15 million, gain $20 million, lose $30 million, and earn it back. If that isn't playing, then I don't know what is!

No matter how many facts and figures you have, you can't predict the future. There will always be surprises. Things that are supposed to be successful won't be, and things that are supposed to fail will succeed. Creativity helps us realize that we don't have to understand everything. We can enjoy something - feel it and use it - without ever fully comprehending it.

Stephanie Kwolek
Wilmington, Delaware

If you want to innovate, you have to have three things: a certain level of knowledge about your field; a great desire to do something useful, either for society or for an industry; and an objective. Your objective may be broad or narrow, but you must have one. You must be willing to try different approaches to a problem, and you must not give up until you find an answer.

There is one other necessary quality: a receptive mind. You have to be open to the unexpected, so that, if you come upon a discovery, you'll recognize it and act upon it.

A large part of innovation is welcoming difference. You have to be open to the unusual and understand that difference is often positive, not negative. A lot of people see something unusual and assume that it's wrong. Innovation is the ability to see something unusual and to recognize that the answer may lie in its difference.

Jake Burton
Founder and Owner
Burton Snowboards
Burlington, Vermont

A lot of people think that I invented snowboarding, but that's not true. When I was about 14, I was exposed to a rudimentary product that embodied the concept of snowboarding, but it wasn't very functional or sophisticated. The Snurfer was marketed by Brunswick, a company that also created bowling alleys. An employee at the company had come up with the idea by putting a wooden platform on two skis. Clearly, that company's management never realized the value of what it had. I had no idea that snowboarding would become as popular as it has - but did realize that people would want the product, and I committed energy to making and marketing it.

In certain industries, "innovation" refers to something scientific, or it involves some sort of technical research. I have a completely different perspective. What I do has an element of opportunism to it: It's market-oriented. I think that's how many innovations come about. It's certainly how innovations happen at our company. We ask, "What do people want? What's missing?" There's so much technology in the world today that, whenever you identify a shortcoming, you can find the tools to address it. If the original product is a hassle for people, they'll fork over money for something that's better.


Excerpted from Fast Company magazine, April 2000

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