An overdue enquiry
Looking back through a longish, and, thankfully, ongoing career of advising business and brand leaders on typically large strategic decisions (most recently focusing on business and marketing transformation for future growth) I've found that the headline moments - the most impactful, valuable and indeed enjoyable working experiences - have, without exception, involved one or more "Big Breakthroughs".
It startles me to realise - not least because such results really form the basis of my recent and current offerings as a consultant and mentor to my clients - that I've never, until now, taken the time to explore in any depth the intrinsic nature and importance of the strategic breakthrough.
Who, actually, needs breakthroughs?
Why do we need breakthroughs, and why now more than ever?
When do we know that need a breakthrough?
Where do breakthroughs come from?
How do we know when we've achieved a breakthrough?
And, with a nervous glance at the all-too-familiar "1% inspiration, 99% perspiration" rule of success (the stark proportions of which I do, by the way, admittedly from the bias of one whose children are fed and sheltered mostly through the fruits of whatever inspiration I can find, dispute), what exactly does a breakthrough enable in terms of generating beneficial change?
Before we dive into considering these questions, it seems right to make a rather broader declaration of intent. I've come to understand that, while most strategic development processes are about establishing and agreeing "what to think", the deeper underlying assumptions - for example, that the environment in which we live and work - the world, our customers and our various competitors - will politely stand still, while we ponderously deliberate a typically self-centric and limited range of possible futures - urgently need challenging. It is, in fact, "how to think" that represents the more urgent challenge to business leadership.
Interestingly - alarmingly - amidst the universal debate about disruption, innovation, transformation and so on, and with the now-tedious, tending-to-useless mantra that "The World Has Changed" droning on in the background, we still think about business strategy in more or less the same way that we did in the 1980's. I began to address this concern in my recent book, The Liquid Enterprise, which was intended - and in some instances seems to have succeeded - as a wake up call to enterprise leadership and its advisors, above all arguing that entirely different ways of "doing strategy" are urgently needed, especially given that so much of the role of strategy lies in observing, understanding and reacting to context.
Who needs breakthroughs? And why?
The context within which we live and work - the environment within and around which we aim to create and exploit new forms of value - now bears little dynamic resemblance to the world which made the essential work of, for example, Michael Porter, such a powerful touchstone into the early years of this century. The challenge of simply "managing (more or less linear) change" is yesterday's luxury. We now trade in a time of what I have called "chronic turbulence". And this space will only become faster, more chaotic, and more unstable, over time.
While most of the world's incumbent enterprises work towards becoming - and this means different things everywhere you look - more agile, our thinking remains mired in laborious, risk-averse, narrowly focused corridors that lead to slow reaction, missed opportunity and naive approaches and responses to threat.
Perhaps this sets the scene usefully, to point up the demand for less navel gazing, and far more, rather than less, inspiration. In order to do business as differently - indeed, as courageously - as we now need to to, we need to think differently.
A consultant and personal friend pointed out to me some years ago that "you're either offering process, or you're offering genius". While I make no claims whatsoever to the latter, it's surely clear that we have no time for long-winded methodologies of thought. And in any case, the historical models of the world that we naturally enough bring to our thought challenges merely lock us into ways of thinking that, from here on, are redundant even as they roll off the press.
We need to think in ways that, consistently, rapidly and repeatably, enable Big Breakthroughs.
When do we need a breakthrough?
At the most basic level, in my own experience a breakthrough is demanded when either we're not sure where to go next, or we know where we want to go, but feel hampered or blocked by an obstacle. That obstacle may, by the way, be temporarily invisible to us, and a key part of the early endeavour can be working out exactly what it is that stands in the way.
This is precisely where "how we think" becomes critical to forward movement. But the pressure on leadership teams to a) be seen to know exactly what to do at all times and b) from there to be seen know exactly how to implement whatever change is evidently needed, typically makes productive, creative thinking emotionally impossible.
A lot of the time - and this will surely only increase, effectively to infinity (the speed of business will continue to accelerate into the future, foreseeable or not) - we're not at all sure what to do. And this starts with not knowing what to think. And knowing what to think depends, entirely, on knowing how to think.
Breakthrough thinking (and let me just flag in passing something that has become clear - that some of the most powerful breakthroughs in fact come from not thinking at all ...) is utterly different from business as usual thinking. Some of my own most penetrating and valid work has occurred when, for example, putting down the problem in hand and listening to music ... certain punk bands, by the way, seem to provide the kind of mental floss that does the trick.
But here's the key. We rarely today have the luxury of a leisurely series of workshops - spread over weeks or even months. And while engaging one of more of the big name consultancies or agencies provides a certain amount of valuable reassurance, their typical (although not universal) dependency on hard wired methodologies tends to make the intervention too ponderous for purpose, while at the same time failing to provide a sufficiently bold and radical intervention.
Einstein - as so often - provides a neat summary of the issue here. "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."
Where do breakthroughs come from?
There's something mysterious - even miraculous - about a breakthrough. It comes from a different place than any other form of realisation. The "before" is like standing in front of a thick, apparently impenetrable wall. The initial feeling may be one of utter bewilderment - perhaps fear, at the prospect of failure.
As mentioned above, I summarise such challenges into two basic types. We either have no idea where to go next. Or we have a desired outcome, but no idea how to get there, or, perhaps more commonly, see a huge block in our way that appears insurmountable.
Either way, when we do break through to fresh clarity, there's a sensation of having performed a kind of alchemy, having extracted conceptual gold from a mere handful of earth.
Can a breakthrough be made to happen? Is there a formula to guarantee success?
My own belief - and I'm happy to alter this anytime - is that any form of process thinking tends to reduce the potential for a breakthrough. Not least because - with a nod back to Einstein's point above - true breakthroughs seem to happen - to emerge - out of our unconscious, unstructured minds, rather than from a logical step by step development process. We need, it seems, to put down linear thinking in order to reframe and readdress the challenge.
In this sense, I believe that any useful thought tools and techniques that we may find useful are likely to focused less on "what to think" - what does a viable solution to the problem as currently stated look like? - to "how to think", and in particular, how to think differently.
A case in point. A friend of mine a couple of years ago, at a crossroads in terms of both career and life direction, asked me "What do you think I should do?" After reflecting for a few seconds - and, I should say, stepping back into what I think of as my mental breakthrough room (I know ... a bit pretentious and weird ...) - I suggested this: "Probably nothing at all."
Somehow this kind of counter-intuitive approach widens the field of consideration. In a way, it dissolves that wall that we confront, long enough to distance us from the obvious "hard wired" solutions (note that they're often hard wired by the way the initial problem is framed in words), and - I'd say importantly - to prise open the gates of the unconscious mind, whose processing power, by the way, is exponentially greater than that of the conscious mind, thereby enabling a far greater freedom and power of thought.
Or, perhaps, "non-thought". There's conclusive evidence that not thinking lends itself beautifully to the solution of thought problems. Well-covered elsewhere, of course. Certainly, the imp of the perverse seems to play a frequent and precious role in the magical unlocking process that leads to a true breakthrough.
Referring back once again - for the last time - to Mr Einstein - I've found that the vocabulary of the problem as stated has a knack of blocking the way towards a breakthrough solution. For that reason, reframing the challenge in a variety of non-traditional - even bloody-mindedly counter-intuitive - expressions, in particular, being deliberate about breaking free of sector and company jargon - is almost always useful.
A familiar example of this method is when we're looking for new customer value - in other words, for promising areas of innovation. As soon as we remove the problem statement from the area of "What might we, as the company, be able to do?", and move the discussion to, say, "How does it feel to be a customer in this or that situation?", the creative space invariably, and rapidly, opens up to enable more radical, energising options.
How do we know we have a breakthrough?
So far, so more-or-less-familiar workshopping techniques ... But what separates a true breakthrough from just another decent idea that no one had come up with before? In my experience, we recognise a breakthrough emotionally before we challenge it rationally. A true breakthrough is felt as an immediate "Aha!" moment, where a good idea is more of an "Ah ...".
Indeed, and this is an area of enquiry I'm excited to explore, a true breakthrough lands as more of a "HaHaHa!" moment. There's a useful and pleasing connection between a breakthrough and an excellent joke. Someone - I'd like to think it was me, though I think the idea originated with Sigmund Freud's work on humour and jokes - made the point that to hear a good joke is to be "ambushed by the truth". They have a lot in common: a kind of unforeseen collision of old and new meaning - sometimes of sense and nonsense, that in the business context we might describe as an explosion of fresh value, along with a lot of fresh energy to propel it forward into our consideration.
Here's Freud on jokes. "A remark seems to us to be a joke, if we attribute a significance to it that has psychological necessity and, as soon as we have done so, deny it again ... We attach sense to a remark and know that logically it cannot have any. We discover truth in it, which nevertheless, according to the laws of experience or our general habits of thought, we cannot find in it."
Jumping between the meaningful and the meaningless, as it were, we are, when we achieve a breakthrough, ambushed by the truth. And - once again speaking only in my experience to date - true breakthroughs do nothing so much as magically uncover fresh and important truths - whether deeply personal ones, that lead to a fresh world view, or market insights that research had failed to reveal - that were hitherto invisible to us. And that unlock the opportunity for significant, confident change.
To experience a creative breakthrough, perhaps, is akin to hearing the best joke you every heard. Closely followed by the profound satisfaction of knowing that you had written it yourself.
The consequent release of energy, of confidence, of clarity and of desire for change is - as anyone who has faced the forbidding wall between big problem and compelling solution will agree - one of the most precious outcomes a leadership team can achieve.
This, to conclude, is why I remain deeply fascinated by breakthroughs. And as always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for reading. MB.