We’ve all heard this popular expression about the creative ‘spark’ or the ‘a-ha!’ experience. But how does it work in real life?

The lore of business, science, industry and entrepreneurship are filled with references to the “a-ha!” experience of creative inspiration.

In reality, however, these legendary “bolts from the blue” usually come only after many hours of research and study into a particular topic, and sometimes from lessons learned after past failures (Thomas Edison’s 10,000 attempts to perfect the light bulb is one famous example).

By conducting thorough and well-rounded research – and learning from our mistakes – we’re filling our minds with the raw material of the creative process. This is the “perspiration” part of the creative process. Our subconscious mind churns through all of this material and forges new connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information. This is the “incubation” stage of the creative process. The subconscious then sends serves ideas to the conscious mind, usually as vague feelings or intuitions. While the average person may ignore or overlook these hunches, the creative person knows that he or she must record all ideas, no matter how wild or impractical – and evaluate them later.

Be open to all ideas – big and small

There’s a hidden danger in waiting for brilliant flashes of insight or for a so-called “big idea” – a completely novel idea for project, product or service. By focusing too much on big ideas, we can easily become blinded from seeing other merely “good” but still valuable solutions. While not as flashy or elegant as “big ideas,” these less awe-inspiring insights often represent very workable options or solutions, or could be used as stepping stones to other great ideas.

“Perspiration” activities

So what kind of research and mental preparation – or “perspiration activities” – can you do to fertilize your mind for more fruitful brainstorming? Here are some ideas:

  • Read books and magazine articles on the topic or issue you’re working on
  • Visit authoritative Web sites and use search engines to conduct on-line research
  • Ask carefully-crafted questions of experts, who can often provide you with amazing insights into your problem or opportunity.
  • Map out information you need, potential sources where it may be found and open-ended questions that will elicit the most useful information.

The “New 3 R’s”

Most innovations today are not totally new, but often represent new combinations or modifications of existing products, services and technologies. One creativity expert I know, Gerald Haman, encourages executives to become proficient in what he calls “the new 3 R’s:”

  • Research, retrieve and record information
  • Review the information you’ve gathered.
  • Recombine ideas – make new associations between the pieces of information you’ve gathered.

Fortunately, word processing software and visual outlining and diagramming programs make it easy to gather, analyze and manipulate pieces of information into new combinations, further seeding the idea generation process.


Coming up with valuable ideas isn’t rocket science, something only an Einstein is capable of. With the right kind of preparation, anyone can experience the wonder and exhilaration of the “a-ha” moment of creative discovery. Here are a few more tips to help you increase your odds of success:

Know where to look for information. Become a sponge for information on the topic or issue you’re faced with.

Develop the ability to ask incisive, well thought-out, open-ended questions – in other words, questions that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions can yield a treasure trove of valuable information and insights.

Try using mind mapping or other right-brain oriented tools to map out your assumptions, questions and needs for further information.

Even between brainstorming sessions, be a sponge for information, starting with your profession and moving outward into business, social and other areas.

Finally, cultivate an “insight outlook” — consider information, trends and other data from multiple perspectives, and try to identify the inferences, underlying trends or connections they may contain.