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7 Steps to Find Your Magic Secret of Business

Here are tips on how to fuel your creativity so you can come across your next great business idea.
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For Google, it was the realization that you could rate webpages by how many other quality pages linked to them. Henry Ford created an assembly line that let his company build reliable automobiles for less than competitors. When McDonald's built predictable sandwiches, Burger King told people to "have it your way." Sara Blakely, billionaire inventor of Spanx, cut the feet out of some pantyhose, modified the result, and developed the popular body-shaping garment.

Successful companies often start on a unique twist--a magic secret. "Secret sauce" is the term you'll often hear, regardless of the industry. What it means is applied creativity that solves a problem your customer has in a way that no one else does. It's a form of innovation so fundamental that it can overturn the status quo.

The funny thing about a magic secret is that has nothing to do with magic and it's usually not secret. It's an idea that was sitting, waiting to be recognized and used. It seems like anyone could have come up with it, only they didn't. A magic secret of business is an act of applied creativity. Unfortunately, creativity in the U.S. has been declining over time, especially among children, according to researchers. To find your magic secret, you'll need an infusion of creativity. Luckily, there are seven steps you can take to improve your creative output and the chance of nailing your future claim to fame.

Feed the creativity machine

Creativity happens when new associations are made among seemingly unrelated ideas. You need the raw materials for the new associations. Go learn new skills, experience different cultures and travel, study a subject you know nothing about, read widely, and listen to what people say about all sorts of things. By loading up on fresh experiences, you can make new associations that might form the basis for your next big idea.

Work hard

Academic study of creativity in professionals has proven that people are most likely to make a major contribution in the year they do the most work. Other studies show that people whose ideas change the world tend to be older. So, master a field and work hard in it to keep the connections happening and don't worry if you haven't found brilliance before you hit 30.

Go daydream

Daydreaming is a great tool for creativity because it encourages free association of dissimilar ideas. That can get the creative process jumpstarted. Even a few minutes a day can have an impact, so start a regular regimen.

Solve the impossible

Choose a problem that you cannot solve, like ending global climate change by the end of the day. Failure actually kicks creativity into high gear because the mind becomes desperate to succeed and will consider anything, including being creative. Once creativity is active, let it extend outward.

Make your challenges open-ended

Creativity wants to find solutions. The more closed in nature your questions, the less creativity is interested in, or necessary for, what you're doing. For example, instead of looking for three possible names for a new company, look for at least three. Rather than looking to ship products out the warehouse door more quickly, consider the more general question of how to speed products to customers. The more open the challenge, the more ways you might solve it and the bigger a possibility you'll hit on something novel and useful.

Make ideas concrete

Experts say that the more tangible you make an idea, the more you feed the creative process. So don't just think about what you'd like to do. Draw your ideas, build models--physically do something. Look at Leonardo da Vinci's notebook in which he wrote and drew ideas constantly.

Always, always, always have a notebook

You've probably heard the classic tale of someone who wakes in the middle of the night with a great idea, goes back to sleep, and forgets it by morning. You want that notepad with you at all times, because you never know when inspiration might strike. And be creative with how you do this, as well. Maybe you'll send yourself an email or voicemail or add a note to an online reminder system. However you do so, record the idea so you'll have it later. You don't want the best business idea you've had in years to be lost in the dregs of last night's dreams.

Last updated: Jun 11, 2014

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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