Innovate Like Einstein: An Eight-Step System for Innovation



“Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” — Theodore Levitt

Innovation is a game everyone can play.

But you need innovation tools and techniques to be more effective.

What if you could innovate like Archimedes, Einstein, or Edison?  What new process would you create, what new product would you design, or what new idea would you think up?

For some, innovation is more systematic.  For others, it’s more serendipity.  In all cases, a big idea is rooted in insight.

In the book, The Four Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool for Creative Thinking, Rowan Gibson shares a simple process to innovate like Einstein.

The Archimedes, Einstein, and Edison Approach to Innovation

While everybody’s innovation process might look different on the surface, they all tend to follow a common set of steps.

Gibson writes:

“Is there really a ‘method’ by which all ideas are produced,’ as James Webb Young asserted more than six decades ago?

Certainly, Archimedes, Einstein, and Edison seemed to follow quite similar steps to their breakthrough solutions, essentially corresponding with the linear, multistage models of the creative process that have been defined and refined over the past hundred years.”

8-Step Creative Process for Innovation

You can innovate like Einstein.

Here are the eight steps of how to innovate like Einstein according to Rowan Gibson:

  1. Frame a specific challenge and focus on solving it.
  2. Research a subject.  Learn from the work of others.
  3. Immerse yourself in the problem.  Explore possible solutions.
  4. Reach a roadblock.  Feel the creative frustration.
  5. Relax.  Detach from the problem.  Let it incubate in the unconscious mind.
  6. Come to an illuminating insight that fundamentally shifts your perspective.
  7. Build the insight (or insights) into a big idea–a new combination of thoughts.
  8. Test and illuminate the new idea–try to make it work.

Treat the 8-steps for innovation like scaffolding.   Just use the process as a way to build your innovation muscle. 

As you start to spread your wings, you’ll find you can skip over steps or re-sequence them, as you build your fluency in the art and science of innovation.

Innovation Can Often Be Intuitive and Serendipitous

What happens if you miss a step, or skip a beat?

It happens.

Innovation happens.

Sometimes by chance, and not always by choice.

Gibson writes:

“In contrast, many other inventors, entrepreneurs, and innovators came to their ideas in ways that deviated quite obviously from their standard models. 

Their approach to innovation was more intuitive than deliberate; more serendipitous than systematic. 

But, as we found out when we unpacked these latter cases, there was nevertheless a stepwise process involved in discovering and developing each of these opportunities, even though several of the steps may have been in a different order than prescribed in most models, or simply skipped altogether.”

There are Common Steps for Innovation

While you can try and wing it with innovation, or wait for creative lightning to strike, or hope that you experience great flashes of insight, it’s still a good idea to stack the deck in your favor.

I like to think of it as getting up to bat, focus on hitting the ball well, and every now and then hitting it out of the park.

But not swinging for the fence every time you’re up at bat.

I think that rooting yourself in an approach that you can count on for yourself, that allows for serendipity, but at the same time, encourages forward progress, will help you find what works for you.

Gibson writes:

“It turns out, then, that the production of ideas is not quite ‘as definitive a process as the production of Fords,’ to use James Webb Young’s assembly line analogy. 

However, there are some common steps that seem to recur in every case, whether the innovators in question were deliberately trying to follow ‘an operative technique,’ or instead were just following their creative instincts

It’s definitely not wrong to consciously set up the front end of the creative process in the most effective way by framing a specific challenge and focusing on solving it, researching the subject to learn from the work of others, immersing yourself in the problem and exploring possible solutions–probably reaching a roadblock or creative impasse at some point–and then detaching from the problem to let it incubate in the unconscious mind.”

Innovation Sometimes Happens by Chance

Creative leaps happen.

Gibson writes:

“Anyone who has ever spent time in R&D, new product development, advertising or design, or who has ever worked on solving some creative challenge of their own, will no doubt immediately identify with this sequence of steps. 

But this doesn’t mean that innovation sometimes happens, at least partly, by chance. 

As we have clearly seen, it’s not always necessary to follow each one of these preliminary steps, in this particular order, to discover a new opportunity, although several or all of the steps may still occur at some point further downstream.”

Powerful Ideas are Always Inspired by Insights

If you want to innovate like Einstein, while you can follow the steps to improve your effectiveness with innovation, the real key is to master your ability to gain insight.

Insights are the fundamental building blocks of big ideas.

If you want more big ideas, then find ways to shift your perspective and see things in a brand new way.

Gibson writes:

“One element is the big idea.  Obviously, at the heart of every significant innovation there is a compelling and value-creating idea of some kind– a new combination of thoughts.  

The other element is the illuminating insight (or insights). 

Without fail, every big idea was preceded by at least one insight–a new and penetrating understanding into a situation or problem. 

These two elements of the creative thinking process–the insight and the idea–are invariably present in each case, and are always inextricably connected. 


Because if there was one universal law of innovation, it would be this: Powerful new ideas are never simply snatched of the air. 

They are always inspired by insights.”

Just because you don’t have Einstein’s cool hair or mustache doesn’t mean you can’t take a page out of his playbook.

Maybe you won’t imagine yourself riding on a beam of light, like Einstein did, but maybe you’ll see yourself riding something even more illuminating.

Here’s to you, and innovating like Einstein.

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  1. Love this! It resonates with me. I know from repeated personal experience how valuable rumination is–not necessary intentional & thoughtful, but allowing ideas to percolate. There are few betters ways to light the idea bulb than doing so.

    • I think that’s the key — letting ideas percolate, by setting the stage. It greases the skids for more flashes of insight.


  2. JD, This makes me want to go out and read a biography on Einstein! I’m so curious about his habits. I’ve been finding it helpful to work hard at solving a problem or thinking through a problem, then to let go of it before bed, trusting that the mind is designed to be at work making connections through the night. There is a lot of freedom to be had in detaching and trusting that the insight and the solution will come in time.

    • My Dad talked about Einstein early on. He said something about not wasting his mind storing things he could easily look up. Later, in school, I learned that Einstein was a really odd duck, and I heard he had trouble with some every day things.

      Over the years I would come across an amazing quote that would turn out to be by Einstein. Each quote was a gem of insight, and a glimpse into his brilliant mind.

      Over time, the Einstein I thought I knew, and the Einstein I continue to learn about, keeps increasing my curiosity, and continues to grow my respect.

      • Yes, he is a bit of an enigma. He is brilliant and an academic, but seemed to be a very non-anxious person. I’ve just started reading a biography on Tolkien, and he is described by the author to have been very similar–at least in that way.

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