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Innovation is not an event. It is a mindset. It results from a mind open to the possibility that there is (or could be) a different, better way of doing something. Few people find great ideas on a blank sheet of paper. Most of us need our imaginations channeled.

The force behind innovation is insight – an imaginative understanding of an internal and external source that can be tapped to reach your objectives in ways that are different from those done by everyone else, or what you have done in the past.

Creativity can be powerful, but where do you find it? How do you tap into it? How do you recognize it? Many ideas arrive serendipitously, but they may be found systematically, too. Organize your creative sources in categories, just as you segment your market opportunities. Here are seven insight channels you can use to focus your imaginative powers, organize your thinking and find valuable ideas for growth.

1) Incongruity.

Information is everywhere. However, it may often be used ineffectively because people seek averages instead of anomalies. Sometimes the real opportunities lie in the results that deviate from the norm.

For example, the publisher of a job-search book might find there is an average of 8,000,000 people unemployed in the depths of a recession. But these are not potential buyers. They do not want to spend money for books when they can obtain them for free from other sources (libraries, churches, state governments). These sources become your prospects, not the millions of unemployed.

To find incongruous data, ask questions like, “How can we reach people who need our content? Where else do people seek information on my topic? Are sales in Segment A increasing or decreasing? Are sales high in one, often-overlooked segment? Are sales in one segment more profitable than sales in others?” The deviant numbers may be the tip of the iceberg, hiding valuable hidden insight.

2) Convergence.

When several trends become evident, their intersection may be fertile ground for creativity. Pharmaceutical salespeople traditionally gave physicians pads, pens and other sales-promotional items to promote their drugs. PHARMA rules now state that any such items must be educational. Enter books as promotional items. These are educational and may be given to physicians who in turn may give them to patients or sell them for profit. The confluence of these concepts creates an enormous opportunity for book publishers with appropriate content.        

To find convergence, ask questions like, “What are the major trends in my target markets? How could my content be used or adapted to exploit those trends?” 

3) Frustration.

You may have written your book in response to one of life’s irritations (weight gain, money loss, annoyances while traveling). Over time you may become equally frustrated with low or unprofitable sales through bookstores. Subsequently, you could seek other sales opportunities by selling directly to gyms, financial advisors, airport stores or airlines seeking to make their passengers flights more comfortable and serene.         

To find opportunities resulting from frustration, ask questions such as, “Who else experiences (or has customers who experience) the same frustration and could benefit from the information in my books? Who could purchase my book in large quantities? 

4) Tradition.

When you and all your competitors act in similar fashion, it’s worth asking if there is another way. Traditions often block potential innovations because people are reluctant to abandon the tried-and-true. But when conditions change, so must traditions.

For example, many publishers have and will always sell books only through bookstores (bricks and clicks). One solution would be to sell books differently but in the came way. That may appear to be an oxymoron, but it can be done. Selling to non-bookstore retailers is very similar to selling to bookstores. For example, work with distributors or wholesalers that call on airport stores, supermarkets, discount stores, etc. Here, books are sold on a returnable basis and you get paid in 90- 120 days. Sound familiar?  

To find opportunities that apply your traditions in a different way, ask questions similar to, “What beliefs do we hold sacred? Why do things have to be that way? What opportunities would present themselves if we abandoned those assumptions? How can we seek new opportunities with the least disruption to existing beliefs?”

5) Visionaries.

Some people look at what is and think something different. These prophets can be a rich source of mind-opening ideas or insights. These may be authors of cutting-edge books, or people who see solutions, not problems.

To find opportunities not immediately apparent to you, ask questions such as, “What can we learn from what others have done and how can we apply those lessons to our circumstances? Why not try… ? What if we …?”

6) Road trips.

When sales stagnate, get out of your office and meet with customers, suppliers, distribution partners and buyers. It is difficult to see how they think about your products if you do not go out and ask them. This shows much more interest on your part than simply calling them.

Attending trade shows, personal networking, or conducting focus groups can also accomplish this. You might perform brainstorming sessions or join (or start) a mastermind group. Informal research may be as simple as meeting with potential buyers to learn their terminology and strategies.

For example, if you intend to sell books to associations, immerse yourself in their organizations so you both speak the same language. You may find they use terminology such as “non-dues revenue” or “cause marketing.” And you will notice sharp differences between for-profit and not-for-profit groups. The latter focus on fundraising, not sales, and donors, not customers.

To learn the language of your prospects, ask questions like, “How do their terms differ from ours ? What are their objectives? How do they strive to reach objectives now? How could they do that?”

7) Analogies.

As you search for new ways to do business, look to other industries or businesses to see what they have done under the same conditions. Innovation is not always about bringing something new into the world. It’s about usefully applying something that is new to your state of affairs.

To borrow ideas from others, ask questions such as, “Can we import part or all of their solutions? How are our circumstances different? Similar? What can we learn from what they did? Will that apply to our situation? What if we tried something different?”

Being innovative is not the end of the process. You must implement your newfound ideas. But when most people see a new idea they feel uncomfortable and have a natural, negative bias. Instead, when you see a new idea, focus initially on its positive and interesting features. Think of the acronym PIN when you have a new idea. First make a Positive comment, then something Interesting, and if necessary make a Negative observation. When making that observation, be “positively negative” by offering a twist that could make the idea potentially successful. An idea is like a round peg that won’t fit into a square hole. It needs some re-shaping. What is positive about your latest “round” idea?

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Brian Jud is the Executive Director of the Association of Publishers for Special Sales and author of How to Make Real Money Selling Books.