How do breakthroughs happen? Can they be engineered, or is it pure luck? Or is it a skill that we can develop and improve upon over time? Breakthroughs happen on the individual level as well as organization level or society level. I don’t get stuck a lot, and even when I do it’s never for more than a few days. I never asked myself why. One thing I know is I am always looking for breakthroughs. I don’t know if I can quantify my success rate, but generally I feel pretty good about it so far. Along with the fear of the unknown and the pressure to make it happen, breakthroughs come with an incredible sense of possibility and satisfaction. The experience of uncovering a breakthrough is exhilarating and even hard to explain. It’s a sense of not knowing exactly where I am going, but knowing that I am going somewhere. Here’s what I know about achieving breakthroughs:
Preserve the “Me”
The world I’m living in today seems to be a completely different one than the one I lived in about ten or twenty years ago, and sometimes I wonder if the world is really changing that fast or if what has changed is just the way I look at it. There is a notion that if you cannot change the world, change the way you look at the world, but I don’t like the idea of changing my “self” according to the world and adapting to it. It is just me. The central core of what’s “me” contains beliefs that I’ve built up over the years and a value system that provides me with perspectives of the world and forms the greyscale of my personality. Black and white only exists in film and photography and my Prada suit; seeing the world in black and white is terribly dangerous. The person who views things only in black and white will always be miserable or unsuccessful in whatever they pursue. That’s not and never was the rule of the universe. Sticking to your core does not necessarily mean you are not open to the world. It means you open the world to “you” and everything you experience adds one more layer of sophistication to the “you” and heightens your awareness and sense of being. Any personal breakthrough need not give away or suppress the “you.” What you experience every day should enhance the “you.” Breakthroughs require the “you” in “you.”
Anticipate and Leverage Moments
Most breakthroughs don’t happen through excessive rationalization or planning. In fact, almost all breakthroughs are sparked by “moments.” This is one of the things I teach people about looking for breakthroughs. The process of finding any breakthrough – whether in business, technology or design – often involve immersing oneself in large amounts of data and extensive debate and synthesizing information. Most people fail to see the moments when they happen or fail to capture them. For me, a long time ago I started working to facilitate them, making them happen more easily and more often. How we ask questions and how to push people (as I do with my staff) to their limits is one way that I try to help them experience moments. I sometimes feel bad for being seen as critical and demanding, but that is just one way to get it. Taking pictures and observing people in the field are other effective ways. I have a long list of things you can do to maximize it happening, but you still need to remember and make sense of them.
Expand Awareness through Emotions
There is so much myth about emotions; we often associate them with the extreme cases when we overreact or how they prevent us from making the right decision or making us too aggressive with the things that we want. These are all true, but emotions also have a positive side – if you know how to use them. Emotions are our inner sensors at work, sending us weak signals from the outside. It triggers our desire to heighten our senses as a whole and even affects our memory, basically expanding the operating parameters of our cognition. It helps us take in more information, store them in a deeper place inside our mind, hold multiple ideas at once, and layer feelings over objects and situations.
Imagineering as Daily Ritual
Unless you’re in the business of creative production such as film, animation or video gaming, you most likely don’t have a need to use imagination in your daily work. But imagination is not a tool we can call up on demand; we need to practice it every day in order to maintain our ability to imagine. Imagination is a major part of how we frame and solve problems. Much like practices such as yoga or tai chi or voice training, imagining requires one to put in time practicing in order to expand its capacity. The practice of applied imagination (or imagineering) can increase the number of creative options available for a specific problem that we’re trying to solve. Imagination is part of a subconscious way to assist with idea generation. You’re not so much thinking of specific ideas of how to solve a problem, but rapidly and randomly envisioning what might be, what could be, and what couldn’t be. It’s very easy to compare creativity and knowledge in an abstract, metaphorical sense – but we know that our imagination is developed from the knowledge we gain in the experiences of our daily lives and works by employing that information subconsciously until it’s ready to break through into awareness.
Practice Design of Meanings
Try to design a breakthrough project or pilot activity for yourself as experiment. Some breakthroughs are sparked by eureka moments based on insights – but far more are based on design. Design-driven innovation is spurred by thinking about possible breakthrough features, meanings, and product languages that could emerge in the future. This cannot be done by talking to consumers or looking at current user behaviors. Consumers can’t really imagine radical futures, as they are anchored and invested in the current one; thus they are not helpful in anticipating possible radical changes in new product meanings. Big breakthroughs don’t necessarily come from disruptive applications or advanced functions; sometimes it’s new meanings that shift the universe. Think about how every one of the everyday objects that we see around our home can be transformed: instead of being simply functional, consider how to turn them into symbolic objects of irony, desire, and affection.
Photo: Fishbowl Jump by Kay Kim
This article appeared in The Breakthrough Issue