Innovation demands looking at the world differently, and finding connections between seemingly disconnected things. A new book, called Red Thread Thinking: Weaving Together Connections for Brilliant Ideas and Profitable Innovation, by Debra Kaye, helps you do just that. In fact, Kaye walks her talk: Most books on innovation show how a particular innovation came about, then drawing lessons for the individual from the outcome. Kaye flips the paradigm, and focuses on where innovation starts–with the individual.

Kaye’s theme is based on an Oriental legend, which Kaye believes provides a powerful metaphor for the way in which the right connections can lead to brilliant insights and ultimately result in commercially viable innovations.

The tale centers on an elderly god who lives on the moon. He goes out every evening, taking a huge bag and a great book with him. In the bag are red threads, which are the ties between those who will find each other in this life. The god’s mission is to link these threads to all the people who will connect in this life in one way or another. “An invisible red thread connects those destined to meet, regardless of time, place or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break.”

“Just as people are destined to meet and connect,” writes Kaye,”So too the best innovations result from unexpected affinities and relationships among history, technology, culture, behavior, needs and emotions. Their destiny to meet and bond is within our reach. These red threads of innovation are the connecting strands of relationships woven of knowledge, memories and insights that together create a multi-textured fabric of seamless inter-connectivity.”

The book describes five red threads that we can use to create smart and practical innovations for everyday living. Kaye argues that anyone can develop a knack for this five-thread approach. “By weaving together unexpected threads, we become better at tapping into our own broad capacity to get past fixed ideas and assumptions in order to truly think outside of predetermined boxes – and that’s the ultimate business weapon.”

5 Red Threads

#1: Innovation is all in your head. Kaye synthesizes findings from the latest brain research and shows how to make your thinking sharper, clearer, unfettered and more imaginative. “Believe it or not, there’s a fountain of youth in your head – an eternal deluge of new ideas can spring from your brain.”

Red Thread Tip: Sleep on it. Research shows that your brain is very active when you sleep and information transfers from one part of the brain to another, so that new associations and connections can be made more freely without being from some sort of experience in your life.

#2: Everything old is new. Kaye demonstrates how to develop new relationships among a collection of existing parts – what you already have on hand and know about or can access – which can combine in new ways to innovate new products. Conventional wisdom holds that innovation is about the future, but Kaye explains why it’s actually about what’s already present.

For example, the Gutenberg Press, which forever changed the world of communication, was based on ancient Chinese moveable type, the wine press from the vintners in Rhineland and Gutenberg’s own metallurgy experience.

Red Thread Tip: Most “original” ideas aren’t completely original, so look for new ideas within those that already exist.

#3: Consumers are the strangest animals in the zoo. Kaye discusses behavior and culture and how to glean vital insights from observing consumers “on the job,” just living and doing what comes naturally, and how to leverage hidden cultural meanings that explain why consumers behave in certain ways. The good news here for small business owners is that you won’t need to out-spend and out-market the big guys because you are working within a consumer habit, not trying to break it.

“Look what can play into people’s existing behavior,” Kaye advises. “Many innovators make the mistake of thinking a new product must change people’s behavior. That’s hard to do. It is much easier to look at their habits and just create a new fit.”

For example, returning from a family vacation and lugging baggage around the airport, Bernard Sadow saw a customs agent effortlessly roll a heavy machine with the help of a skid with wheels. A little jerry rigging and the first wheeled luggage was born.

Red Thread Tip: Ask unexpected questions. How you frame a question is often the biggest path to new ideas. Jay Walker, the creator of, could have created another aggregator traveler site that offers the best prices and schedules. Instead he turned the tables. He asked hotels and airlines what they might accept. Consumers are now in a position to set prices, and as a result he opened a whole new way of doing business.

#4: What you see is what you get (WYSIWYG). This thread is about communicating an idea in a way that gives consumers an immediate picture of its point of difference. As Kaye writes: “Iconography, the perfect reduction of information to a single, unmistakable sign that can be quickly communicated, seems to be the forgotten stepchild of design strategy, language and simplification.”

Red Thread Tip: Learn how to create an entirely new language and simplify to the feature you want to highlight to create a story that is truly unique; then communicate in a way that can be universally understood. You’ll be amazed at the success of innovation that makes for simpler experiences and interactions.

#5: The force of passion. When you come up with a new idea, lots of people are going to think you’re crazy. You have to listen carefully and know if the naysayers are simply being dismissive, or if they are identifying real problems. Without sustained passion, it can be difficult to absorb criticism with an open mind and a neutral perspective. If you can’t, you’ll kick yourself when someone else comes up with a similar idea and gets to market before you because they persevered until they found that one small breakthrough or the critical tweak that made the product work.

Red Thread Tip: Think that you are a genius. Attitude and belief in your own abilities makes you more curious and open-minded and more willing to take professional and intellectual risks. The more you believe you can stretch yourself, the more you will think of your capacity to be smarter and you may just be so.

Red Thread Thinking is a worthwhile read. You can use it to sharpen your original-thinking skills, help solve tough problems, prepare a talk, pitch, or manage your business in a new and more productive way.

And as Kaye concludes: “Red Thread Thinking can become a way of life, a natural part of how you see the world, ask questions, approach new information, and achieve success.”

Reprinted from my monthly OPEN column.