How do breakthroughs happen? Can they be engineered? Are they pure luck? Or are they the result of skills that we can develop and improve upon over time? 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 hard to explain. It’s a sense of not knowing exactly where I am going, but knowing that I am going somewhere. Here’s my secrets to achieving breakthroughs:
- Preserve the “Me”. The world we're living in today seems to be a completely different one from 10 or 20 years ago and a crazie one. Sometimes I wonder if the world is really changing that fast at a break-neck pace. There is a notion that if you can’t change the world you should change the way you look at it, but I don’t like the idea of changing myself according to the world and adapting to it. The central core of what’s “me” contains beliefs that we’ve built up over the years and a value system that provides us with perspectives on the world and forms the grey scale of my personality. Black and white only exists in film, 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 make a beter “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 involves immersing oneself in large amounts of data and extensive debate and the synthesis of complex information. Most people fail to see the moments when they happen or fail to capture them. I started working to facilitate these moments a long time ago, making them happen more easily and more often. How I ask questions and how I push people to their limits (as I do with my staff) is one way that I try to help them to experience moments. I feel bad for sometimes being seen as critical and demanding, but that’s how I get myself and others to create those moments.
- Expand Awareness through Emotions. There are so many myths about emotions. We often associate them with extreme cases where we overreact, when they prevent us from making the right decision or make us irrational pursuing things that we want. This is all true, but emotions also have a positive side if you know recognize and respond to them. Emotions are our inner sensors at work, sending us weak signals from the outside. They trigger how we expand the operating parameters of our cognition, help us take in more detailed information, hold multiple ideas in our minds at once, and ascribe meaning to the things, people and events in our lives.
- Imagineering as Daily Ritual. Unless you’re in the business of producing film, animation, video games or other highly creative outputs 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 using 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 yoga, tai chi or voice training, imagining requires that we put in practice time in order to expand our ability. Applied imagination (or imagineering) can increase the number of creative options available for specific problems that we’re trying to solve and help with tasks like ideation. Rather than focusing on developing ideas or how to solve a problem, Imagineering is about 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 an 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.