IN TODAY'S business world, the difference between success and failure is not whether you have a great manufacturing process, you can cut costs better than anyone else or even that you are first in the market.

Today, the real, long-term competitive edge is the ability to have great ideas. Not merely that, it is the ability to keep having them as the competition innovates to respond to your moves.

But how do you get ideas? And, more importantly, how do you keep getting ideas? Here are five tips to help your company and its people become idea-generating machines.

Feed your brains

How many great ideas were born at a grey desk in an even greyer office? Very few.

Albert Einstein used to daydream in a park. Thomas Edison used to go fishing when he wanted to create a new invention. The world's most prolific inventor with over 1,400 patents to his name, Shunpei Yamazaki, goes swimming underwater.

So don't just sit there, do something. Go for a walk. Ride a bike. Go to the cinema. Read a book. Whatever gets your creative juices going, do it - because the last place you'll find a great idea is behind a desk.

Tolerate ambiguity

The world isn't black and white; it's a thousand different shades. Yet we spend our whole lives looking for the right answer. In business, there may be no right answers but there are possibilities.

Examine them, think them through. What would you do if your company had unlimited funds? This is called the Li Ka Shing technique. Come up with 10 possibilities as if funds were no problem.

Then examine these ideas to see how they may be implemented more inexpensively, more quickly or more slowly. The possibilities are endless if you dream a little.

2 + 2 = 5

Your people are your greatest asset. Within every organisation, there exist ideas, opportunities and knowledge. Give these ideas their day in the sun.

When was the last time you solicited ideas from your staff? When did you last sit down together and brainstorm an issue? Do you have a formal way for your staff to give you ideas? You might not find the right answer but you will find a lot of new ways of looking at the problem.

Fail more often

It took Edison 10,000 experiments to get the light bulb right. J. K. Rowling submitted Harry Potter to more than 50 publishers before somebody decided that it was worth printing. Alexander Fleming failed with the experiment he was doing but discovered penicillin.

Don't be afraid of failure. It brings knowledge that something didn't work. Try something new - you can always go back to what you did before. Calculated risk-taking is the forte of the great manager. If you don't take risks and stand still, pretty soon somebody else is going to run you over.

Keep learning

Never stop learning. Not only in your field, but in others as well. The inventor of the ballpoint pen was a journalist. The man who created the mechanical adding machine was a philosopher. The creator of bubble gum was an accountant.

Next time you stop by a magazine stand, buy one you have never read before. You may find new ideas, processes and ways of thinking in areas that you would never have considered. Take courses and get your best people to take them as well. Life-long learning is exactly that - a life longing to learn.

These are just a few ways to get your best people to come up with more and better ideas. There are hundreds of others you can discover for yourself.

Creativity and ideas are not an option for companies any more. They are must-haves. Is your company up to the challenge?