Since the age of the Enlightenment, modern Western society has been enchanted by the notion of progress; improving, accelerating, moving forward, and rising to the top are all aspirations captured within this deeply entrenched cultural ideal. More recently, a sexier word has come onto the scene that reaffirms our continued pursuit of “better-ness.” This contemporary variation of progress comes in the form of innovation.
Innovation is now nearly a requirement to exist as an organization. To be on the cutting-edge of product or service development is no longer a nice-to-have; it is a must-have. Business journals, executive programs, and professional conferences can’t talk about the state of affairs in business without mentioning the word innovation. The slightly less popularized yet arguably more evocative cousin to innovation is the term breakthrough. Breakthroughs can be an extremely valuable source of inspiration and source of incredible progress, if well understood.
And so, our love of progress continues as expectations for constant, rapid newness get higher and higher. However, taking some time to examine what we mean by such a buzzword is worth the effort in order to strategically hire for and create environments fertile for breakthroughs. To do this, we can begin by examining the etymology of the word and its various uses in contemporary culture.
Interestingly, “breakthrough” is derived from a military context, combining the idea of “a break in line” and “a move through.” Early definitions of breakthroughs referred to a military movement or advance all the way through and beyond an enemy’s front-line defense. A more thorough explanation of the original meaning explains:
“As the first unit breaks, the adjacent units suffer adverse results from this (spreading panic, additional defensive angles, threat to supply lines) and, since they were already pressured, this leads them to “snap”, causing a domino-style collapse of the defensive system.”
Inherent in this definition is recognizing that a breakthrough does not happen out of thin air. It occurs after a pre-period of pressurizing the object of focus so that it results in a sudden release. One could also presume in this military context that it’s not one single person who can accomplish a breakthrough, but a full line of people working together. Additionally, it’s probably not the first attempt that makes the break; it’s after trying multiple strategies and tactics that the conditions finally become ripe for success.
When I think about the ways in which expectations around breakthroughs exist today, I wonder if breakthroughs are perceived to be instantaneous, or do they occur by the single genius of someone discovering something new? Do we think of breakthroughs in the Newtonian sense: an apple fell on his head, and a-ha, a breakthrough? Or do we consider breakthroughs a result of various tinkering around and playing with ideas?
More colloquial understandings of the word breakthrough state that it is any significant or sudden advance, development, achievement or increase — as in scientific knowledge or diplomacy — that removes a barrier to progress. Lacking in this definition is the effort it takes to remove that barrier. Barriers are heavy, cumbersome, ingrained, and often take a lot of work and deliberate focused intent to move past. A breakthrough is not quite as easy or as simple as it may seem.
This article is part of The Breakthrough Issue collection…
Read the second part here – The Origin of Breakthroughs Pt. 2