Get to know your competition.
He was constantly on the road, visiting stores and figuring out everything he could about how they worked. In "The Idea Hunter," former COO Don Soderquist recalled his second meeting with Walton:
"The next day was Saturday, and I went shopping, dressed in a pair of mangy cutoff jeans--at the Kmart near my house. I walked over into the apparel section and saw this guy talking to one of the clerks. I thought, 'Jeez, that looks like that guy I met yesterday. What the heck is he doing way out here?' I strolled up behind him, and I could hear him asking this clerk, 'Well, how frequently do you order? ... Uh-huh ... How much do you order?' ...
"He's writing everything she says down in a little blue spiral notebook. Then Sam gets down on his hands and knees and he's looking under this stack table, and he opens the sliding doors and says, 'How do you know how much you've got under here when you're placing that order?'
"Finally, I said, 'Sam Walton, is that you?' And he looked up from the floor and said, 'Oh, Don! Hi! What are you doing here?' I said, 'I'm shopping. What are you doing?' And he said, 'Oh, this is just part of the educational process. That's all.'"
In other words, get to know how your competition works, so you can top them.
Listen to your customers.
Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company, known for Samuel Adams Boston Lager, came up with the idea for selling beer while talking to a stranger he met in a bar.
The man was drinking a Heineken. He said he liked the imported beer even though it tasted "skunky," Koch recalls.
Then, a realization dawned on Koch: There was a market for a high-end beer with a fresh taste, which could come from a domestic brewery.
"To me, ideas come from real-world stimulation," Koch said.
Take long walks.
Big thinkers are often brisk walkers: Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and Aristotle all made long walks a part of their idea-generating process.
Now, Stanford researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz have confirmed the connection between steps and thoughts.
In a new study, they found that participants who went for walks saw an 81% increase in tests measuring divergent thinking, a thought process associated with creativity in which you generate lots of ideas.
"Given what we found, if you have a task that requires many ideas, going for a walk--even around an office--appears to give you a fresh perspective," Oppezzo says. "Also, if you can't do a walking meeting because it's awkward or you need to take notes, going for a walk beforehand seems to be a good prescription."
Invite in diverse opinions.
In the summer of 1937, Walt Disney was eating alone at a restaurant in Los Angeles.
At the time, he and his team were working through a movie called "Pinocchio." Then he saw a notable someone sitting next to him: Leopold Stokowski, the British conductor.
Disney, ever ready to make a connection, called the maestro over.
They starting dining together. Disney asked Stokowski what he thought of a musical piece he had just acquired the rights to. This eventually lead to a groundbreaking collaboration: "Fantasia," the first long-form fusion of classical music and animation.
The takeaway: Meet with people you wouldn't otherwise interact with, and seek out possible collaborations.
Keep careful track of your ideas, and refer back to them when you're stuck.
Ever have a great idea on your commute but have lost it by the time you get to your desk?
Thomas Edison was assiduous about not letting any ideas escape him--he'd write them down in any of his 2,500 notebooks. If an idea didn't have an immediate application--or it simply failed--he'd save it for later.
Then if he got blocked on an idea, he'd refer back to his former thoughts looking for a new approach.
Think Jar Collective gives an example:
Edison's unsuccessful work to develop an undersea telegraph cable ultimately led to a breakthrough on a telephone transmitter. He took the principle for the unsuccessful undersea telegraph cable--variable resistance--and incorporated it into the design of a telephone transmitter that adapted to the changing sound waves of the caller's voice. This technique instantly became the industry standard.
Set aside time to pursue big ideas.
Tech giant 3M instituted "15% time" long before Google had its version. The program allowed employees to use some of their work time to pursue their own projects.
In 1974, a 3M scientist by the name of Art Fry used his 15% time to find a way to put an adhesive onto the back of a square of paper, creating the Post-it Note.
3M would never be the same. More than 1,000 Post-it products are now sold in 150 countries.
Pay attention to news and culture.
Great ideas are usually the result of a combination of conversations, research, experience--and time.
The Broadway musical "West Side Story" was originally written as a story revolving around Catholics and Jews, not Puerto Ricans and whites, as we know it today. But the creators quickly realized that Catholic-Jewish tension was dying down as an issue and decided to put the project aside.
The idea came back to life when the composer and writer reunited six years later and a saw a newspaper headline about gang fights between California residents and Mexican immigrants in L.A.
"Whether you have a good idea, a bad idea, or maybe an odd notion that's hard to assess at first," Boynton and Fischer write, "success will depend heavily on whether it's put into a flow of other ideas."
"If you were to see my calendar," says LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, "you'd probably notice a host of time slots greyed out but with no indication of what's going on. There is no problem with my Outlook or printer. The grey sections reflect 'buffers,' or time periods I've purposely kept clear of meetings."
At first the buffers seemed like "indulgences," he says, but now they're necessary to do his job; there's not much time for strategic thinking when you're bouncing from meeting to meeting all day.
Weiner admits that there will always be a need to knock another to-do item off your list, but as companies get bigger, leaders need more time to think about what the company will be like in a few years or what customer needs are yet to be met.
That thinking, if done properly, requires uninterrupted focus; thoroughly developing and questioning assumptions; synthesizing all of the data, information and knowledge that's incessantly coming your way; connecting dots, bouncing ideas off of trusted colleagues; and iterating through multiple scenarios. In other words, it takes time.
Turn your attention elsewhere.
Greek mathematician Archimedes got one of his best ideas in the bath. According to legend, he was asked by his king to figure out the metallic composition of a crown without harming it. Then he had a eureka moment:
Archimedes knew that gold is more dense than silver. So if a certain weight of silver had been substituted for the same weight of gold, the crown would occupy a larger space than an identical one of pure gold. But how does one measure the volume of an irregular crown?
Stepping into his brimful bath, as legend has it, Archimedes noticed water splashing over the rim. The more of him that was immersed, the more water overflowed. Eureka!
Neuroscientists at Carnegie Mellon have found that the brain regions associated with making a particular decision continue to be active even while working on other things.
The takeaway: When you're stuck on an idea, immerse yourself in something else. The answer can be found later.
Aimee Groth and Jhaneel Lockhart contributed research to this article.