Think Brighter
Here's how I try to build brainstorming into my daily routine.
By Pat Croce

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Do you ever face a mental blank at the drawing board? If so, it might be time to explore new ways to come up with creative ideas. After all, today's entrepreneur is under attack not only from domestic competitors but from foreign ones as well. And what's the best competitive weapon in a rapidly commoditizing world? Fresh ideas that will distinguish your products and services. Over the years I've discovered that many entrepreneurs who become successful idea generators follow a routine. By learning their brainstorming patterns, you can demystify your creative thought processes and generate better ideas with more regularity.

Daydream. Muse. Visualize. Mull. Doodle. Those activities are considered by many to be a waste of time, but they're actually invaluable pieces of the creativity puzzle. You should loiter in your brain whenever you can. I usually go fishing for ideas when I'm exercising in the morning. The increased blood flow and endorphin rush seem to stimulate my brain, coaxing all my ideas, even the ones that might at first seem loopy, out of my subconscious and into the open. One time a few years back while exercising I saw a Hemingway look-alike contest on TV. At the time I was trying to find some way to leverage my collection of pirate cutlasses, a treasure chest, blunderbusses, and a Jolly Roger flag. The TV contest was in Key West, and when I saw the crowds and the Hemingway feel of the island and realized that pirates had been part of that scene, I knew I had the location for my new pirate museum.

When ideas come to you, write them down without worrying about their value--what may seem a lark today could spark a brilliant idea tomorrow. I fill memo pads with scribbled notes, far-out doodles, and crazy ideas that eventually grow into keynote speeches, unusual marketing strategies, and new business opportunities. I adhere to the Chinese philosophy that reminds us that the weakest ink is better than the strongest mind.

Once you get an idea, it's time to rate its potential. Years ago I had what I thought was a winner. It was a competitive card game called Phyzical that I would market to the athletically inclined. But luckily--after investigating liability issues--I realized there was a good chance that I could get sued if less-than-fit participants were injured performing the game's exercises. That idea was thrown back into the hopper!

Another way to rate the potential of a new idea is to study what others have done in similar situations. Digest their experiences and then add your special touches. The Internet can be a great resource, but don't forget good old-fashioned libraries and bookstores--the places where, back in the 1990s, I investigated the wild idea of buying the Philadelphia 76ers. After reading in the newspaper one morning that the 76ers were in the dump while NBA assets were on the upswing, I had a flash that I could own the team. But it wasn't until I had bought and read an armful of books on professional sports that I knew I would buy the Sixers.

Finally, transform your new idea into reality by cooking up a plan to implement it. This is the most rewarding part of the creative process. An idea remains meaningless unless it's put into action. Besides, your mind will tire of generating fresh ideas if none ever become real.