Ideas can come from anywhere. But managers can’t afford to rely on haphazard, hit-or-miss approaches.

Businesses win through new ideas: new ideas for products, for developing and refining processes, and for tackling strategic and operational challenges. mitsloan_130x130Given the complexity and volatility that characterize today’s business landscape, the ability to develop creative new ideas is more important than ever. In fact, a recent IBM survey of 1,500 CEOs from more than 60 countries named creativity the most important leadership quality. But coming up with creative ideas on demand is only part of the answer. Just as crucial is how ideas link to action. In a business context, creativity is only useful when it leads to innovation. Managers must be able to apply creative thinking in a systematic way that achieves results: revenue growth, delighted customers, a stronger community or some other measure of impact. In addition, ideas must fit with an organization’s strategy or take it in a new, purposeful direction. They must solve real problems for stakeholders such as customers or employees, and they must be able to be tested.

Many brainstorming exercises that companies undertake fall short in this regard. Although such sessions are frequently fun for participants, the output is too often considered impractical just days after the exercise. Against this backdrop, we have developed an integrative process for idea generation based on approaches drawn from several domains, including education, consumer research, business model design and emergent strategy. The seven steps have been honed through our research and client work over the past decade.

The first three steps are designed to help managers understand the problem deeply. Steps four through six describe how to generate tangible ideas for solutions. And the final step explains how to translate the ideas into action.

To illustrate the approach, we will describe our recent efforts to develop new approaches for solving a vexing problem involving the distribution of drugs for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDRTB). Some TB strains have advanced to become resistant to first-line drug treatments, and there are more than 500,000 cases of MDR-TB globally, mainly in India, Russia, China and South Africa. Yet, for a variety of reasons, only about 20,000 of the patients are appropriately treated with quality-assured second-line drugs.

Lilly Foundation’s MDR-TB Partnership asked us to work with their leadership and the World Health Organization’s Stop TB Partnerships to convene some of the world’s top thinkers in global health, TB, supply chain management and other fields for a two-day ideation session. The goal was to develop ideas that would enable people with TB to access the drugs they needed more easily and consistently.

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