Sharpe + Harrell Photography

For months I’ve been talking about how the recession has changed the industry, how the old ways of doing things don’t work anymore, and how success in the “new normal” will come to those who are the most creative and adaptable. But where does innovation come from?

We’ve all heard about the “eureka moment” of Archimedes, the Greek mathematician who, so the story goes, suddenly realized while settling into the water in the public bath that displacement could be used to measure the volume of an irregular object. (According to the legend, Archimedes jumped out of the bath and ran home naked shouting “eureka,” which means “I have found it” — though his neighbors probably thought he had lost it.)

But breakthrough ideas that arise seemingly out of nowhere are often, in fact, the product of a long process. If “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% hard work” (attributed to both Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison), then what appears to happen by accident or serendipity is more likely deliberate — and even predictable.

My good friend Paul Winans recently sent me a link to a story that appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine about a consulting company called Jump Associates that specializes in solving intractable problems for a fee. The story, by David Segal, opens with a description of a “project room” at the company, with its walls covered in Post-it notes and index cards bearing cryptic phrases and simple ink sketches, all having something to do with storage. Sitting in the middle of the room were three men, of whom Segal writes: “It looked as if these guys had been locked in and told they couldn’t leave until they dreamed up 1,000 of the wackiest home-storage items they could imagine.”

He wasn’t far off. After three months of work on the problem, the team at Jump Associates described themselves as being “at about the halfway point.” They wouldn’t reveal who the client was, but the Jump website has numerous case studies, including one about how the company helped Target become “Tar-zhay” — and boost revenue by 12% in 2001 — by developing an innovative line of college back-to-school products.

Another example is closer to home. Here at Hanley Wood, which publishes REMODELING, we have a tradition called the “idea factory,” an annual retreat at which several dozen people from all company departments lock themselves, as it were, in a room with the sole purpose of developing as many ideas as possible for meeting the needs of our diverse audiences. Over the years, implementing the best of these ideas, we have generated millions of dollars in new revenue.

In your search for new ways of doing business, inspiration may indeed fall out of the sky and smack you on the head. But the best ideas — and more of them — will come if you set the stage for creativity, then get to work thinking stuff up.

And if there’s a bath involved, be sure to bring a robe.

—Sal Alfano, editorial director, REMODELING.