How Anyone Can Achieve Breakthrough Thinking

October 20, 2017

Case categories include: Entrepreneurship   Executive Development   Founder’s Insights   Leadership   

By Paul Witkay, Founder & CEO, Alliance of Chief Executives

The world is changing at an exponential rate of speed as industry after industry is being transformed. Almost every CEO I work with is either seeking breakthrough ideas that will disrupt their industries, or is in fear of falling behind – or both.

I’m always looking for ways to help others generate breakthrough ideas, which can be defined as sudden advances that move us past barriers and allow us to see and do things in new ways. CEOs are not the only people searching for breakthroughs, however. Some breakthrough thinkers, such as Albert Einstein, Henry Ford and Nelson Mandela, have literally changed the world, proving that breakthrough thinking can make profound differences in both our business and personal lives.

I love books about breakthroughs for this very reason. My latest find is The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking by Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack. The authors discuss how breakthrough ideas happen not just by accident, but can be induced by anyone. The title comes from the authors’ belief that “breakthroughs, like butterflies, may fly an unpredictable path, but it is possible to capture them if we build the right net.” They describe not only their findings based on neuroscience, but also provide practical tools we can use to increase the probability for creating breakthrough ideas.

I do not have room in this column to discuss all of the techniques recommended by Cabane and Pollack, so I recommend reading the book to learn about the actual tools. However, it’s helpful to understand the four types of breakthroughs.

  • “Eureka” Breakthroughs also known as the “Aha Moment,” arrive suddenly as clear, fully-formed ideas that appear to come out of nowhere – most typically when you’re not thinking about the problem. During the Iraq War, two soldiers who were fans of NASCAR noticed that army helicopters were replacing windshields on a regular basis due to the desert sand. They knew that NASCAR drivers used thin sheets of Mylar film to protect their windshields from scratches and were cheap enough to replace after every race. By “stealing” this idea, the soldiers saved the army millions.
  • Metaphorical Breakthroughs aren’t as direct as Eureka insights. They connect two seemingly disparate concepts, which require some interpretation. For example, a plumber named William Watts had recurring dreams about walking in the rain – except the rain was not water, but lead. When the drops of lead pooled around his feet, he picked some up and saw they were perfectly round droplets. He wondered if they might solve the problem of misshaped shotgun bullets, and created an experiment to drop molten lead into a bucket of cold water from six stories above. He patented the “shot tower,” which was a breakthrough for accurate weapons.
  • Intuitive Breakthroughs are difficult to explain and are often the beginning of a path towards the complete idea. They happen most often to those who have vast amounts of experience in their field. All of the deep knowledge and insights these experts gain over the years are stored in their minds and enable them to have insights that are not available to others. Some time ago, for example, aeronautical engineers with PhDs were certain that planes would disintegrate as they approached the speed of sound. Chuck Yeager, armed with only a high-school education but many years of flying experience, was certain that they were wrong – and he proved it.
  • Paradigm Breakthroughs are the most powerful and also the rarest. Examples include Darwin, Newton and Einstein, each of whom developed grand theories regarding systems of thought that fundamentally changed the rules. Paradigm breakthroughs typically involve a series of insights from numerous others before the final “big idea” arrives.

Cabane and Pollack discuss how our brains have two modes of operation: a focused mode and a meandering mode. The Executive Network (EN) is an example of the focused mode, which is goal and action-oriented and helps us get things done. The Default Network (DN) is an example of the meandering mode. It is our source of creativity and always runs in the background. We need both modes to generate breakthrough thinking, and as such, learning techniques to switch back and forth between the two modes is critical. The EN provides the knowledge base for the DN to work on when it’s able. We are better able to access our DN when we minimize the energy allocated to our EN. We have some control over these modes, and the authors describe numerous techniques that enable our brains to switch between them to generate fresh ideas.

If you’re looking for new ways to generate breakthrough ideas, I recommend reading The Net and the Butterfly. You may not come up with the next Einstein-sized breakthrough that changes the world, but the techniques described in this book could help you solve your most difficult challenges or transform your business or your life.