What Is Breakthrough Thinking?

Ray Hawk
Ray Hawk
Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone
Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone

Breakthrough thinking is a type of structured problem solving that is halfway between free association and brainstorming, and planned approaches to finding new solutions through controlled goal setting and creative trial-and-error. Businesses attempt to employ breakthrough thinking to gain a competitive advantage over their rivals or to develop new products and services to take profits to a new level. The underlying motivation is to find dramatic solutions to overcoming current limitations instead of incremental ones.

Revolutionary insight is popularly known as a "eureka moment" or the eureka effect, named after the Greek scientist Archimedes of 200 BC, who, as legend states, discovered a method for measuring the volume of irregular shapes while sitting in his bath. Cicero, the famed Roman philosopher of the period 100 BC, later referred to the principle as "afflatus" or inspiration, which was believed to be a divine gift from the gods. The 20th century Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine's study of complex systems and irreversibility has led to the scientific understanding that breakthrough thinking is based on natural states of change and decay in open systems with free energy, such as people and companies that have for a time unlimited potential to grow.

In the past decades of the 1980s and 1990s, western business culture often encouraged a type of group problem solving known as brainstorming, which was seen as a way to come up with revolutionary methods of thinking outside of current organizational structures and procedures. Often, customers were consulted in the process as well to see what they thought of potential new products or ideas. The problem with the methodology was that it proved to be too vague and unstructured. Ideas were either too radical to suggest and implement, or based on current knowledge that would only result in small and rather meaningless changes. Customers often had no valuable input, as they were being asked to speculate on things the company hadn't yet done and which didn't fit within its standard operating procedures (SOP).

In analyzing the results of failures in the use of brainstorming, three major flaws in the process were seen. Individuals put together in groups tended to make less of an effort to come up with ideas than they would on their own, through an effect known as social loafing. Peer pressure within the group also stifled the level of radical solutions to problems that would come to mind but not be proposed, known as evaluation apprehension. Production blocking was another significant limitation, where a small number of individuals would dominate the group, and block others from actively participating.

The approach of breakthrough thinking attempts to get around all of these failures by defining limits and then encouraging innovative thinking based upon those limits. First, it identifies known problems that are serious for the business, but which are seldom discussed openly due to the company culture or a perceived hopelessness about changing the situation, such as the chief cause of customer complaints. Next, it depersonalizes the discussion by focusing entirely on known business quirks to gather new insights, such as how the company's products may be used by some customers in unexpected but beneficial ways. To prevent production blocking, group sizes are limited to four individuals, where the mix of people is chosen based on the likelihood that everyone will participate in the discussion.

Defining the parameters of breakthrough thinking are the first concrete steps in making any progress. These involve assuming that the problem is unique so that new solutions will be sought instead of old ones, and looking for the underlying cause of the problem. Thinking beyond the limits of the current problem by estimating what will happen when its solved, and how it will change the business in the future, is also seen as instrumental in coming up with a sudden realization that will actually work. The whole process is also based on making sure that accurate information exists beforehand and that everyone is involved in finding a solution. As well, its also important to set deadlines for implementation, or breakthrough thinking has a way of drifting back into brainstorming with no specific end game or goal in sight.

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