Your manager has just assigned you a difficult project or problem and you're at a loss to envision any possible solution. Is it time to hit the pervasive search engine and starting looking? Perhaps a call to a favorite vendor or perhaps an unknown one? An approach might be to stop looking for a solution and find someone that has a bigger problem than you do, preferably a much larger problem. Depending on the problem, you might even find that person inside your own company.
Odds are someone has a bigger problem than you do and looking outside your normal field of vision is often needed. Looking to reduce the cost of your email system? Try an organization such as a university, other large not-for-profit corporation or a particularly financially distressed company for ideas. Want to improve the integrity of your data center? Can you find a company where revenue dead stops when they're down. How about the stock market? If they make the Wall Street Journal headlines when problems occur, that's a good place to start.
Money, or lack thereof, is a good place to start hunting. Following the money trail is also useful. Are you looking for management support for a new security idea and the CIO isn't very receptive? Who else in your organization is rewarded when incidents are reduced or eliminated? With the advent of SOX compliance putting more people on the chopping block for deficiencies, perhaps Audit, Compliance or the CFO has that bigger problem.
Sales people are rarely a good source, simply because they sell a solution to your problem, not to their problem. Their problem is making their quota, and rightfully so. Helping solve your problem may be aligned at times, but in most cases they sell stuff, not solutions, and their reward is not directly tied to your problem being solved, but in getting the contract signed. Sales people can be a good conduit into making connections into the companies you want to investigate. A better way is to join and be active in one or two few large user groups or leverage a company subscription to The Hackett Group, Gartner Group or other advisory and benchmarking firms. Using LinkedIn, Plaxo or other web-based social networks can also lead to making the right contact.
The idea is not just to implement everything another company does, but to generate new insights into your specific problem. Perhaps one or two components of their solution is enough to satisfy your current needs. Stretching your mind in the direction of the problem, not an immediate solution, may be the key to your next "breakthrough".