At the heart of any successful business is a great idea. But how do some entrepreneurs dream up game-changing idea after game-changing idea while others fade into mediocrity?

Cracking the code on "aha moments" and creative epiphanies is a topic Stanford Start X innovation experts Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack explore in their latest book, The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking.

Turns out, it's not magic -- it's neuroscience.

They say there's a way to systemically tap cognitive processes that generate insights. It comes down to stimulating associative thinking, a process in which the brain pieces together disparate information to solve problems in unique ways using skills like questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.

Put simply, breakthroughs come from mashing up experiences, applying existing ideas to new contexts, and drawing on successes from outside industries.

The seven innovation questions.

Since gaining mental clarity can be challenge, Cabane and Pollack share a tool to help you make associations.

It's a structured brainstorming method called the Seven Essential Innovation Questions, developed by Autodesk's Innovation Genome Project.

Autodesk studied 1,000 of the world's greatest innovations and what the data showed is that famous innovators tend to ask and answer these seven questions, which follow the acronym LUMIAMI.


What could you look at in a new way? Can you reverse a perspective, take a 30,000-foot view, or even ignore something you know to be true?

2. USE

What could you use in a new way, or for the first time? Think about ways to substitute your product or service in place of something else, for example.


What could you move -- changing its position, frequency, or speed? If you've been incubating an idea internally, consider how you might expose it to people outside your company. For products, think about importing features from other industries.


What could you interconnect, for the first time or in a new way? What could you combine or connect to make the concept more powerful? What new groups or partners could you expose the idea to?


What could you alter, in terms of design and performance? Explore how you could standardize processes. Look for ways to create a novel look and feel.


What can you make that is truly new? This is hard, because these days it seems like there is nothing unique under the sun. However, try to think about what new meaning you might be able to create or infuse your innovation with. Is there a way to make something that already exists more specialized and focused?


What can you imagine that would create a great experience for someone? Look at ways to simplify the buying process, for example.

If you're prone to getting stopped by the voice of your inner critic when brainstorming, try an odyssey challenge. It's an exercise used in design thinking to circumvent thought traps that hinder imagination. You dream up five different scenarios of what could be possible if practical constraints like money or time weren't an issue.

While there's no guarantee answering these questions will transform you into the next Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, they provide a helpful framework for getting unstuck.