In my experience, the way most inventors invent is by identifying a problem and developing a solution for it. Unfortunately, this is not an effective method. There are simply too many uncertainties. Do other people agree that the problem is real--so real that it demands a solution? How many? Will the market embrace it? How do you know? Maybe no one else feels the way you do. Inventors who have invested their time and energy into ideas like these become frustrated. They say things like, "If only I had the money! Money is all I need." If they find the money, they end up with a garage full of product no one will buy.

There are other ways of coming up with ideas. I don't think you have to wait for inspiration to strike. When I set out to license my ideas for a living, I approached creativity like work, because that's what it was. I couldn't afford to sit on my hands. I needed to churn out idea after idea. I knew licensing was a numbers game, after all. The good news is, with a little practice, you can come up with ideas whenever you want to.

After licensing my product ideas for decades, I think the best way of coming up with an innovation is to let the market tell you what it's looking for. My process goes something like this: I start out identifying a category that fascinates me. I avoid industries that are notoriously challenging, like the toy industry. There are so many people creating in that space. Don't get me wrong. I think it's a great industry. But you will have an easier time your licensing your ideas if you focus on categories of products that are growing as well as receptive to open innovation.

Once I discover a good category, I begin studying all of the products in it. What are the companies in that retail space producing? I analyze each product's benefits. How and why does one differ from another? I take note of how the products are packaged as well as what they're retailing for. I also visit Amazon to read what consumers think about the products. Why is one perceived to be more valuable? What do consumers wish were better?

The top design firms in this country innovate through observation. They watch consumers use products with a careful eye and think, "How can I improve upon this experience?" I think that makes a lot of sense. When you invent a small improvement to an existing product, you set yourself up for success. A market already exists, there's that. The proof is indisputable. You've taken part of the guesswork out of product development. You don't have to wonder if the product is actually needed. Clearly, people are willing to pay for it.

After I've spent several hours studying a category, I challenge myself to start thinking about variations. What can be done to improve it? Can I add a new feature? What about a different material? Can I personalize it somehow? I play creative games, like Mix and Match. I ask myself, "What if...?" Creativity is a muscle that needs to be exercised. It's your greatest asset throughout every step of this process, so get used to flexing it.

But how do I know that I have a winner on my hands when I come up with a variation? Well, I don't. Not for sure anyway. That's why I'm quick to do as little as I need to before showing it to potential licensees. If they reject the idea, I'll ask for feedback. Their opinion is the only one that matters. At this point, I've studied the market enough to move forward with confidence.

Of course, the potential licensees I show it to could be wrong. There's always that possibility. No one ever truly knows what the next great idea is going to be. You might decide to venture it instead or run a crowdfunding campaign. It all depends on your aims and commitment.

The bottom line is, coming up with ideas should be fun. Let yourself be inspired by what you discover. Rely on calculated decisions as opposed to personal experiences to guide you. There isn't as much mystery to this as you might imagine.

Published on: Jun 17, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.