For entrepreneurs, creativity is not simply a luxury. It’s an essential survival skill. Common entrepreneurial pitfalls include:

  • Trying to do everything on your own
  • Difficulty developing strategies or deciding where to focus your energy
  • Neglecting to invest in yourself
  • Falling in love with a venture and pursuing it without proper development

The key to avoiding these traps is understanding how you approach a challenge. The latest creativity research finds we all use our creativity in different ways, but follow a common problem-solving process. Once you understand the creative process, you can intentionally apply it, boosting your creativity and efficiency while strengthening your initiatives. It boils down to these four stages:

  • Clarify the situation: We explore the issue at hand, find all relevant data that will help us make sense of it and figure out the most effective path to take to resolve it.
  • Generate ideas: We come up with and select the best new ideas for making a change that best addresses the situation.
  • Develop solutions: We tinker with those ideas till they are perfect, then break and rebuild them, and then polish them till they shine.
  • Implement the solution: We put ideas into action by: gaining acceptance of the solution, helping people manage change and adapting solutions as needed.

Related: Five Creativity Exercises to Find Your Passion

This process can happen very quickly or deliberately, and in or out of sequence. It can be done in groups or independently. These simple strategies for using the creative process can help keep you on track toward breakthrough success.

1. Stop and think before you start. Self-awareness is a fundamental trait of successful leaders and teams. Once you know your limits, you know where you’ll need to bend, where you’ll need to ask for help, and where you’ll be fine on your own. Thinking about how you get things done, reflecting on the ways your team may work together, will help you be clear about direction and limit the amount of fires you have to put out along the way. This is not “touchy feely” talk. It’s serious work that will save you tons of time on the road ahead.

2. Embrace diversity. Knowing how to leverage diversity is a powerful skill. Here we are talking about diversity of thought -- leveraging different ways of thinking. Recognizing where you (and your team) are strong, and where you aren’t, is critical. If you know you are not adept at one part of the creative process, seek others who are. Bounce thoughts off them and listen to the new directions their different thinking can provide. Challenge yourself to be open to other’s perspectives.

3. Beware of love at first sight. If you find yourself enamored with a particular direction or idea – great, but watch out. You may be onto something, or you may be not exploring things carefully enough. Take the time you need to be sure the direction you are heading fits the need, the idea you have is well thought-out and you’re prepared to manage the change effectively.

Related: How to Build a More Innovative Business (Video)

4. Take one step at a time. Skipping stages can lead to serious problems - like focusing on the wrong issue, or implementing a half-baked solution. We all have preferences for different parts of the process that may lead us to unconsciously gloss-over or completely skip essential steps that would make an innovative idea a reality. Notice where you are in the process and where you need to go next – be deliberate.

5. Know when to move on. When we enjoy a part of the process, we tend to linger in that stage. Witness the guy who spouts a new idea every five minutes, or the gal who keeps asking, “How will this work?” People who apply the process effectively know when their preferences are getting the best of them and are able to shift direction. So don’t obsess over endless possibilities or clarifying details. Be sure that you’ve done a thorough job, you are still on target, and then move on.

Innovation is more than just coming up with a new idea. Instead, it’s a process with many components and many players. Any idea, no matter how world-changing, can die in committee or, worse still, after implementation, without attention to all four steps of the creative process. Paying attention to targeting the right issues, developing solutions thoughtfully, and then implementing them with both sensitivity and determination will help you turn that creative spark into a true breakthrough innovation. Knowing the process is like having a good map, now it’s up to you to drive innovation home.

Related: Bridging the Gap Between Passion and Profits