All Articles Leadership Inspiration The "why" of what inspires great Ideas

The “why” of what inspires great Ideas

5 min read


This post is adapted from the book “Creative Strategy Generation” by Bob Caporale (McGraw-Hill, 2015). Caporale is the president of Sequent Learning Networks. His goal is to help business practitioners infuse more passion and creativity into their jobs. You can learn more about his work by visiting or following him on Twitter @bobcaporale.

If you enjoy this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.

Ask where do great ideas come from and you’ll likely hear why they evolved rather than how. They were inspired.

Some of the best ideas haven’t been developed; they’ve been inspired. I say this because if you ask someone where their great ideas come from, they will probably be more inclined to tell you why they evolved rather than how. In other words, they’ll be telling you what inspired them.

When people are inspired, it usually means that some external force has pulled on their emotions and caused them to see or feel something that they may not have been seeing or feeling previously; and this often compels them to take some action in order to express that feeling. This is easy to see in typically creative endeavors such as music or the arts: somebody felt something and they turned that feeling into something tangible so that it can also be felt by others. But how do we translate this idea of inspiration into the world of business? What can be so compelling as to inspire us within a business context?

You may be inclined to say that the inspiration for a business strategy will come from some basic business need. If your business is in decline, you need to turn it around. If your business is stagnant, you need to kick it in the pants. If your business is growing, you need to keep it on the right path so that you can continue to invest in it. These are some common origins of many business strategies. But these are hardly inspirational ideas.

The reason is that these needs all have internal origins; meaning that they are based on what you want to do rather than what someone else needs. In this way, I prefer to say that these types of goals are motivated rather than inspired.

I believe that we are motivated by internal drivers and inspired by external drivers. You may be motivated to be a better person, but you will be inspired to change the world. This is a subtle but, in my mind, important distinction because a motivated business strategy may focus solely on what a company wants to achieve, while an inspired business strategy will tend to focus primarily on meeting the needs of a group of customers, with the company needs then being satisfied as a result.

I usually get called into large, established, healthy companies to help them develop their product and business strategies. Many times these strategies are motivated, quite rightly, by their companies wanting to ensure sustainable and continuous growth. The problem is, those same companies often say that they want to be more innovative or develop products that will change the world, not because they really want to change the world, but because they want to grow. That’s not inspiration. That’s motivation.

And the result, almost inevitably, is that those companies don’t end up changing the world because, in reality, they don’t really want to. Why? Because the world is pretty darn comfortable for those companies just the way it is.

The strategies of smaller startup companies, on the other hand, may tend toward being inspired by external needs; perhaps because their own internal motivations haven’t yet been fully developed. That’s not to say that less established companies don’t have any selfish motivations, but they are usually better positioned to be driven by somebody’s passion to make a difference in the world, with the internal reward serving as a result rather than as a primary driver.

Of course, this distinction probably has less to do with the size of a company and more to do with any established position that a company may or may not be motivated to protect. The point is, if you do not maintain a healthy balance between your internal motivations and some external forces that are driving you to look beyond your own needs, your ideas are likely to be uninspired, and your strategic results are likely to follow in kind.

So, if you are looking for inspiration in business, you may not find it in the typical goals of increasing revenue, profitability or even market share. Instead, think about what your customers collectively need. Understand the problems that they face and the impact that solving these problems might have on their lives. These are the thoughts that will tug on your emotions, and these are the inspirations that will cause you to come up with ideas that absolutely have to be expressed.

If you approach your business in this way, be it large or small, the resulting products and services that you offer will be true works of art that will connect to other people’s needs, desires, and emotions. This type of bond will be invaluable to the customers with whom you establish it, and your business will only grow as a result.