The out-of-nowhere light bulb is amisleading metaphor. Innovation happens more slowly, says Debra Kaye, author of Red Thread Thinking and CEO of Lucule, an innovation consultancy. You gather impressions and information over days, months, or years. The fuse sputters on, then, one day...blam. Kaye spoke with Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan about how to light the fuse at your company.

What is a red thread?

It's an Asian legend. When a baby is born, a god ties a red thread around its ankle and the ankles of all the people the baby will meet in its life, representing the connections it will make. Innovation is about connections. You connect knowledge, memories, and insights to shape new innovations.

Why is it hard to institutionalize innovation?

Big ideas don't occur in a formal setting. They bubble up from observations you make while you're walking around with your mind engaged in something else.

You want an environment where people of every age and position have the capacity to come up with new ideas and test them out. If you can create a culture of people asking questions and being good observers, you may not need an R&D department.

You advise companies to return to the past. Why?

No idea is completely original. Everything stands on the shoulders of what came before. When we work with clients, we ask them to give us their old concepts. Products they tested where something went wrong. Maybe something about the testing was off. Or maybe the idea was just before its time.

Are start-ups at a disadvantage because they don't have corporate histories to rummage around in?

Not at all. One thing you can do is look at companies that have nothing to do with your industry. What's out there you can adapt? I call it world mining. If you're making a new cat toy, maybe Nike has invented a fabulous rubber for the bottom of a sneaker, and you can use that on a scratching post.

You say don't pay attention to trends but do pay attention to culture. Why are trends bad and culture good?

Culture is mass ideology--a system of values and beliefs that runs so deep we don't question it. There's an American belief in personal invention and reinvention. You see that in social products like Snapchat and Instagram, which allow us to invent ourselves in the moment. They may seem like a trend. But they reflect a deep underlying value.

Trends are much more superficial. They are hard to get in and out of quickly enough to make money. Kraft came out with CarbWells in 2004, at the end of the low-carb craze. It was a disaster.