It’s easy to think that good business ideas come in a blinding flash of inspiration to some lucky entrepreneur (probably in his/her garage somewhere), but this is almost never the case.

A great idea is generally a destination – a series of interrelated steps that take you from where you are to running a profitable enterprise.

Now, most articles you read will tell you that a great business idea meets a demand. That you have to look around you to see what problems can be solved, then find a way to solve that problem in a way that generates profits.

That’s right. But I don’t think it’s the whole story, which is why this article is going to give you a few handy tips and pointers about how to find the right problems – without driving yourself mad trying to force a moment of blinding inspiration.

Here’s what Steven Johnson says about where good ideas come from:

1. Understand what makes a good business idea

Think of a great business idea as a jigsaw puzzle. It’s one idea, but it is created from many different parts. Those parts are everything from the bits of information and knowledge/skills you have, to literal parts like a car, garage, tools, Internet, and so on.

How you construct a business idea depends entirely on the parts you have available, and more importantly, the parts you know about. It’s pretty difficult to complete a jigsaw puzzle when you only have half the pieces, right?

What makes a good idea then, is something that meets a demand or solves a problem elegantly using readily available stuff. Coming up with an idea for a faster than light spaceship is fantastic – but essentially useless because we probably can’t manufacture the parts we need to build it right now.

Often, a good idea isn’t completely new. It’s something that has been done before. But, you may come up with a slightly different, cheaper or better way to do it.

Come up with your idea yet? If not, keep reading…

2. Gather more puzzle pieces

What do you have to offer the world in terms of providing a product or service? If you don’t know the answer to this, you’re probably not ready to get started just yet. After all, if you don’t know what value you bring how will anyone else?

The way to discover what you can offer, and where and how to offer it, is to escape your comfort zone.

Get out of routines. Do different things. It can be anything you like – but preferably stuff you love.

Don’t feel guilty about pursuing things you enjoy. It is often those things that you are most passionate about that will reveal great new opportunities (most likely because you are simply more observant when it comes to stuff you love).

Spend a bit of time pushing the envelope. Go to networking events. Force yourself to meet new people, and find out what they do. Find out what drives and motivates them. What problems and obstacles did they have to overcome (or are still experiencing).

Every new person you meet can, amongst other things:

  1. provide knowledge & skills
  2. introduce you to someone who may change everything for you
  3. expose you to completely new information & ideas

There is incredible value in seeking out productive, like-minded people. This brings with it the chance to learn new things and find new opportunities. You might find that your ideas come half-way through chatting with someone interesting.

There are also some great online resources for gathering new ideas and inspiration – especially when they’re packed full of pictures and video clips showing how other entrepreneurs are converting ideas into profits.

3. Combine resources, network and creativity

Let’s say that when you first wanted to come up with a new idea you had 20 distinct puzzles pieces – some family members willing to help, a PC, Internet connection, etc. After spending some time in step 2, you might have doubled or tripled the number of puzzle pieces available to play with.

Now’s the time to lay them all out on the table and start playing around to see what type of picture you can make. Perhaps several people you spoke to mentioned problems they were experiencing. Others talked about cool new things they had heard about. Whatever you have, try combine and recycle what’s there to come up with a viable idea.

Don’t do everything in your own head. Often, speaking to other people will enhance your own creativity.

Reach out to family and friends, colleagues, or go and speak to established business owners or industry experts. It’s amazing what insight and advice you can glean for the price of a cup of coffee.

4. Rinse & repeat

Here’s the nice part. If you can’t seem to come up with a great idea, it’s not because you can’t do it. It’s because you don’t have enough pieces of the puzzle. Go back to step 2 and gather more pieces before trying again.

Eventually, you will know everyone and everything about what’s going on. And when that happens, you’ll be able to see opportunities you never dreamed about.

The alternative is to work alone and not expose yourself to all the great possibilities that are floating all around. I tried that. It didn’t work well.

If you’re looking for inspiration to help come up with an idea of your own, it’s worth checking out our small business ideas page, which has plenty of unique and interesting ideas over a range of categories, complete with picture and clips of how other entrepreneurs are making things happen. You can also help others and make new connections by sharing your own ideas there.

So what do you think about this strategy for developing new ideas? What would you do differently?