How to come up with better business ideas

May 4, 2011: 3:16 PM ET

Tireless curiosity beats a high IQ every time, and learning to ask the right questions is crucial, according to a pair of new books.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Where exactly do good ideas come from?

The word "idea" comes from the Greek idein, which means "to see." That's no coincidence. As co-authors Andy Boynton and Bill Fischer (with journalist William Bole) point out in their book, The Idea Hunter: How to Find the Best Ideas and Make Them Happen, great business ideas don't occur as bolts out of the blue.

Instead, they're usually just lying around in plain sight somewhere, waiting for someone to notice them -- like, for instance, the little scrap of lightweight material Henry Ford picked up off the ground at a racetrack in Palm Beach in 1905. A bit of debris from the wreck of a French car, "it was very light and very strong. I asked what it was made of," Ford later recalled. "Nobody knew."

The stuff turned out to be a steel alloy containing vanadium, which was not manufactured in the U.S. at the time. Ford put his best R&D team on it and, three years later, his company rolled out a more durable, lightweight line of cars that gave Ford (F) a decisive advantage in the crowded, chaotic auto market.

The Idea Hunter draws on dozens of other examples from iconic U.S. companies like Disney (DIS), Google (GOOG), Wal-Mart (WMT), and American Express (AXP) to make the point -- an encouraging one for those of us who are no geniuses -- that "curiosity…can more than make up for a lack of brilliance." (As Albert Einstein once said, "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.")

In fact, the authors contend, "the cleverest people [in an organization] have a tendency to overestimate their brain power," which leads them to "stick to their success formula and…not go hunting for better ideas. In other words, they're just not interested enough."

Most of The Idea Hunter is a step-by-step prescription for turning avid interest in the world beyond one's cubicle into blockbuster products and services. In Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas, co-authors Kevin P. Coyne and Shawn T. Coyne tackle the same process from the perspective of new research on how the brain works.

By their lights, much of the conventional wisdom about innovation just isn't true. There is such a thing as bad ideas, making a list of every idea that comes into your head won't result in finding the best one, and most brainstorming sessions just don't work.

You knew that already, maybe from bitter experience? Then according to Brainsteering, you're ripe for the next step: Mastering the art of asking the right questions, which have a far better chance of yielding great answers than the questions you may be asking now.

Acknowledging that acquiring the knack takes patience and perseverance, the authors offer an exercise you can try right now: Every time you come across an idea you admire -- a new product or service, a persuasive ad, a clever cost-saving move -- ask yourself, "What are three possible questions that could have led me to come up with that idea?"

And don't be afraid to think big. Instead of asking, for example, "How can we expand distribution to meet our 5% sales volume growth target this year?," try asking: "What would it take to get our product within arm's reach of every consumer on the planet?"

Wild as it sounds, the authors note, that audacious goal -- set decades ago -- has worked out pretty well for Coca-Cola (KO).

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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