Breakthroughs need something to break through

breakthroughQuick, make a list of the biggest and boldest projects in your company. How many make you uncomfortable?

If none of them hit you in the gut and make you gasp for air, then you have a serious issue on your hands.

Here’s why “being uncomfortable” is a good sign that you are on the right track…

The 4 minute mile

Until 1954, the four minute mile was something beyond human comprehension, and thus beyond human achievement. Until May 1954, Roger Bannister shattered this barrier, running the mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. Two months later, in Finland, Bannister’s record was broken by John Landy, who achieved a time of 3 minutes 58 seconds. Within three years, 16 other runners had also broken this record.

What happened in those three years? Was there a sudden growth spurt in human evolution? Was there a genetic engineering experiment that created a new race of super runners? No, the equipment was the same. What changed was the mental model. The runners of the past had been held back by a mindset that said they could not surpass the 4 minute mile. When that limit was broken, the others saw they could do something they had previously thought impossible.

The four minute mile barrier Roger Bannister broke back in 1954 has since been surpassed by almost 17 seconds, 3:43.13; the current record.

The mental model challenge

Innovation is as much about attitude and perspective as it is about process. As it pertains to challenges, “It’s all in how you look at it” is a common refrain when talking about how to see what nobody sees. It may sound like a cliche, but it is true. The limits we put on ourselves are in our heads, in the mental models we carry with us and in the attitude with which we approach things; growth and fixed mindsets.

I believe that those of us with a growth mindset have a hard time getting excited about small ideas. I’ve previously written that it’s hard to get excited about incremental ideas because most of the time you already know what they are; that next extension. Big companies are competent at optimizing the core, incremental ideas. Startups are competent at disrupting, challenging established processes and perspectives; the stuff that may lead to breakthroughs.

So, the fear of losing what you have, loss aversion, is a powerful bias that contributes to a fixed mindset when it comes to challenging the status-quo. I’m quite sure that strategies that are born from a perspective of loss aversion are typically aimed at playing not to lose; instead of aiming to win.

In the case of the 4 minute mile, Roger Bannister aimed to break that record.

Overcoming the “easy way out”

If you keep doing things the same way you’ve always done them, you’ll never grow; much less innovate. I categorize incremental “easy way out” ideas as the ones that make the most sense but are not in any way challenging to anyone. Basically, anyone with some capability and positioning can execute those. Which is why you see so many copycats; the ideas simply don’t pose a challenge to existing beliefs and infrastructure.

Though innovation is very much a team game, all innovators share a common set of traits. One of them is the drive to do challenging work. The vast majority of people get overwhelmed by challenging ideas, it makes them uncomfortable that there isn’t a clear way to reach an outcome.

I’ve been working on a new venture for almost a year now. This venture is very much a “breakthrough” for me, it’s been in my head for almost three years and it’s become an itch I need to scratch. Other people were involved at the beginning, but they are no longer in the project because to them “there is no clear path” to achieving the outcome. They wanted to take the easy way out, which means doing the most obvious thing that won’t be the most challenging. You see, this isn’t an idea someone told me they needed, it’s something I’d like to see in the world; therefore it doesn’t have a direct comparison.

This is the reason most people are not innovators: they want to make things too practical to not have to deal with the larger challenges.

It’s also why breakthroughs are hard. Unlike incremental ideas, which you already have a clear path to optimize, when aiming for breakthrough you have to start with first principles, which requires lots of mental effort.

As I’ve stated before, true innovation makes competition irrelevant because a true innovator doesn’t innovate to compete; we innovate to create better outcomes. Those “better outcomes” should be challenging to achieve, not easy. Simply put, the litmus test for breakthrough innovation: If an idea has disruptive potential, it should make you uncomfortable.

To overcome the easy way out is simple, but challenging for most:

  • Be a Yes Man/Woman and do things you’ve never done before;
  • Ask questions to rethink assumptions;
  • Always be learning.

That’s it. Whether you succeed or fail, all learning leads to growth. So learn more. No need to write a guide, just do more stuff to learn more stuff. Period.

Bottom line: Making new mistakes that lend new insights is the shortest path to innovation. As innovators, we don’t change the world by taking the easy way out. We change it by breaking through existing mindsets and other obstacles that are in the way of achieving better outcomes.