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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: August 2015

3 - Process: How Are Innovative Ideas Formed?

from Part 1 - Basic Concepts


The ideal output of the innovative process is a novel, relevant, commercially effective, elegant, and genetic product. The question that now arises is: What processes give rise to the ideas for such products? In answering this question, the present chapter will focus on the building block of thinking. Reduced to its barest essentials, thinking involves obtaining information, sorting/categorizing and storing it, recalling it, and (re)applying it. As a building block of innovation, thinking involves special or particular cognitive actions such as making associations between or among remote pieces of information, seeing unexpected implications of facts, transferring existing knowledge to new situations, or interpreting events broadly. An amusing if rather disgusting example of the application of such processes to generate the novelty for a commercially successful product was given by Gordon (1961). He described how the problem of the last drops dripping onto the table cloth after tomato ketchup has been poured out of the bottle was solved by seeing a link between this problem and the way a horse's anus controls the flow of feces, and designing a nondrip tomato ketchup bottle cap based on this insight!

Components of the Process of Innovative Thinking

In an early discussion written from the point of view of organizational theory, Roberts (1988) made a distinction that is helpful for present purposes: He divided the process of innovation into two subprocesses that he labeled invention and exploitation. Invention is related, as the term itself indicates, to production of novelty, while exploitation is linked to identifying and utilizing the novelty in a commercially successful way. More recent writers have also described two components of innovative thinking. Bledow, Frese, Anderson, Erez, and Farr (2009a, p. 309), for example, divided the process into idea generation, on the one hand, and idea implementation, on the other. Ward and Kolomyts (2010, p. 94) identified generative and exploratory processes. Davila, Epstein, and Shelton (2012, p. xiv) distinguished between “value creation” and “value capture” (emphasis added). In fact, Anderson, Potocnik, and Zhou (2014) made it clear that the idea of a two-component process is now well established in the organizational literature. Turning to psychological thinking, in an influential discussion, Finke, Ward, and Smith (1992) distinguished between generating novelty and exploring it once it has been generated. Lonergan, Scott and Mumford (2004) concluded that this idea is now widely accepted in psychology too.