Once upon a time, innovation was the province of the R&D lab. Then group brainstorming became the rage, and suddenly, everyone was a potential inventor. Today the pendulum is swinging to the middle. Brainstorming has its benefits, but there's a renewed emphasis on developing new ideas by acquiring knowledge in a variety of ways. So we've reviewed material on creativity with an eye toward providing the kind of "diverse stimuli" so crucial to innovation. We've rated each resource on a scale of five stars (we love it) to zero stars (we hate it).

Save It.

Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem-Solving, 3rd Revised Edition

This book, by Alex F. Osborn (from Creative Education Foundation, 800-447-2774, 1993, $25.95 plus shipping and handling) premiered in 1953 but is still the classic. Before the 1950s, "the study of creativity was very piecemeal," says Suzanne Chamberlain of the Creative Education Foundation. "You were either mad or mystical or had to be born with it." Dubbed the father of brainstorming, Osborn lays out some ground rules and procedures for team collaboration that still hold up well today. (The main ones: refrain from criticism, go for quantity, be freewheeling, and add to others' ideas.) But Osborn also warns against letting collaborative brainstorming substitute for individual creativity: "Group brainstorming is recommended solely as a supplement to individual ideation," he writes. ****

Product Improvement Check List

To help businesspeople free-associate about improving a product, creativity consultant Arthur VanGundy designed a large two-sided poster. It contains a variety of checklists that invite participants to think about everything from sponges to hot coffee while brainstorming about ways to improve their product, change it, or create something entirely new. The poster is available for $10 plus $2.50 shipping and handling from Arthur VanGundy, 428 Laws Dr., Norman, Okla., 73072. ***

Consider this the Web site for resources on creativity and innovation. It's all here: a list and description of virtually every relevant book on the subject, as well as information on software, people, and techniques--even a "mental workout center." Plus, experts contribute valuable content: check out "A Theory About Genius," by Thinkertoys author Michael Michalko. ****

Skim it.

The Circle of Innovation: You Can't Shrink Your Way to Greatness

Photos, graphics, and huge-sized quotes from business thinkers dominate each page of this work by Tom Peters (from Knopf, 800-726-0600, 1997, $30). On the other hand, almost any page might inspire you. It's no fun reading on-line, but most of the book's contents are free at Peters's Web site, (under "seminar"). ***

Corporate Creativity: How Innovation and Improvement Actually Happen

Start this book, by Alan G. Robinson and Sam Stern (from Berrett-Koehler, 800-929-2929, 1997, $29.95), at the end. The last chapter includes a series of questions--on pages 239 to 247--that helps CEOs rate how well they're fostering innovation. In a few pages you get both a helpful audit form and a synopsis of the book's theories. ***

Skip it.

At the home base for the book Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity, by business professor John Kao, we found a disappointing site whose most recent update was dated 1996. Instead of jamming, we were bumming. Zero stars

Innovation: Breakthrough Thinking at 3M, DuPont, GE, Pfizer, and Rubbermaid

We have a right to expect great things from Rosabeth Moss Kanter, John Kao, and Fred Wiersema, the well-known editors of this book (from HarperBusiness, 800-242-7737, 1997, $24). Instead we get tedious discussion along with dry first-person accounts of product development at the likes of 3M and DuPont. This book is the opposite of innovative. *