Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Where Do Breakthroughs Come From?

In a time where global economies continue to consolidate, innovation becomes more essential than ever.  More than fifty years ago, the US was by far the dominant force in global trade.  The world depended on our innovation.  Now, other countries compete with us.  While improvements are necessary, going forward, the wealthiest countries will be the creators of breakthroughs, some technology or advancement that hasn’t existed before. Those countries will attract and retain the most brilliant minds and stay one step ahead.  

Most experts in science or business give great explanations for how breakthroughs are created.  However, like Monday morning quarterbacks, they give explanations after the fact.  The biggest problem with an explanation is that it gives people no access to producing breakthroughs.  It’s a description of the dish, but not a recipe.

Breakthroughs come from nothing and they change the future and our behavior forever.  Before the typewriter there was nothing.  Before the computer there was nothing.  In hindsight, it is easy to explain the transition from nothing to typewriter to computer.  However, no one saw it ahead of time. We had to go through the progression.  And not everyone thought of it.  Why not? 

The business of possibility is messy.  Inventing from nothing requires you think through a tremendous amount of uncertainty.  At the same time, if you can get your mind to think nothing, everything is possible.  While that may sound Pollyanna, I don’t mean it that way. 

Every manager needs to do this exercise periodically.  Take a step back and consider that coming from nothingness is a more efficient path to a breakthrough than attempting to build on top of what already exists.  The goal of the exercise is to be with nothing.  For most people, this is nearly impossible.  Why?  Because you will be stuck with a borage of thoughts like, why do I have to do this? This is boring.  What am I getting out of this?  What now?  What do I want to eat? Etc.  You may even have visual pictures in your head.

And maybe the toughest question: Why is this exercise important?  Because, when you can be with nothing, you let go of presuppositions.  What presuppositions did Sony have about MP3 players?  Most people miss the opportunity to invent breakthroughs because they have already predetermined what is possible or impossible.  Most importantly, people already know their own limitations without ever experiencing the situation.  How many times have you heard someone say: I was not meant to be a manager.  Once you make this declaration, you spend the rest of your time looking for evidence to support what you already know.  Why?  No one wants to be wrong.  Everyone believes they are smart, especially when it comes to understanding themselves. 

When you can get to nothing, you let go of predetermined beliefs.  You let go of the beliefs that you were given to be true.  From there, you can start to ask yourself important questions like, what do I stand for?  Or, if I were identified as my commitment, who would I be seen as?

In this exercise, you would have to develop a new philosophy: nothing is more valuable than something.  Changing that mindset alone can lead you to a new paradigm and the possibility of a breakthrough.     


  1. You are spot on with your observation of breakthroughs coming from "nothing." The United States is backlogged on getting ahead not because of a lack of money but because of a lack of long-distance vision. There are a few American companies out there that are doing a fantastic job of innovation but sadly these companies can be counted in double digits. Apple is the current leader for innovation paired with design. But even Apple has paid a price for hiring cheap labor to produce its innovations overseas. They key to a makeover in U.S. thinking will be convincing CEOs to invest in their people not their companies. True innovation starts when employees feel valued and secure in their employment. They ROI on content employees is far greater than an upscale computer system. Breakthroughs come from nothing...and the U.S. is headed towards nothing, quickly.

  2. Thank you, Karine. I agree. The US has gotten side tracked from innovation. After WWII, we led the world in innovation. With such a lead on the rest of the world, it is easy to become complacent and not know it.

    I also agree with the need to make greater investments in people. Without people, the company does not exist. Without new ideas, you eventually become a commodity and possibly face obsolescence.

    What I also hear you saying is that the US is missing a vision for the entire nation to work towards. For example, when John F. Kennedy declared a man on the moon, it created the possibility for the entire nation to contribute. Currently, we seem to be obsessed with fixing/patching problems and incremental improvement.

    At the same time, China is deploying many resources to ensure innovation. And perhaps the underrated country is Australia. There seems to be a sense of pride by the Australian people as well as innovation that is not widely publicized.

  3. Absolutely, investing in human capital is the key to an organization existence .....