The thing about innovation is that it’s, well, innovative—the result of a creative process and therefore not given to easy analysis. But there are things companies can do to motivate creativity and spur invention. The editors of Fast Company magazine spoke to a few inventive folks to find out how they do it. Jay Sorensen, inventor of the Java Jacket, an insulating coffee cup sleeve, was inspired when he left a drive-through coffee bar and promptly spilled his coffee in his lap because the cup was too hot to hold. While we can’t recommend spilling hot coffee on your employees, you can help them learn to recognize an opportunity that lands in their lap. “For every invention,” says Mark Stefik, a research fellow and manager at the Palo Alto Research Center, “there are two fundamental questions: What is possible and what is needed?” Stefik recommends bringing together a group of people from different disciplines and giving them a common problem to solve. When an obstacle arises, he says, “bring in another point of view: an electrical engineer, a user interface expert, a sociologist, whatever spin on the market is needed. Give people new eyeglasses to cross-pollinate ideas.”

Fast Company Feb 2004