I Couldn’t Find Much That Is New About Breakthough Thinking. (And I’m Not Sure I Want To.)

I took a look the past couple of days to see if I could find any evidence of a breakthrough in the area of breakthrough thinking, and I didn’t find one.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some interesting things going on.

For example, the guys and gals at Idea Champions are still touting the benefits of their Breakthrough Cafés. When the idea was first uncorked a few years ago, Fast Company, the magazine, sent a writer to observe. And what she noticed was about 30 people trying to brainstorm in a dimly lit banquet room. She wrote, “Amid Latin music, a spread of fusilli and tiramisu, and plenty of pinot noir, they’re trying to get past their pasts—and push unrealized ideas to reality.”

To which, I’d have to say, “Good luck!” but that’s just me. I’ve tried this sort of thing. My menu preferences are a bit different in that I prefer a spread of, say, Goat Cheese Enchiladas With Tomatillo Sauce and grilled bananas and ice cream, and plenty of Negra Modelo. Fortified with all that, the only thing I have trouble getting past is the overwhelming desire for a 90-minute nap.

The common thread is confusion
Maybe a full tummy and well-lubricated brain produces different strokes in other folks—and that seems to speak to the real issue here: there’s a mystery afoot. The day we unravel it, we can kiss one thing goodbye: breakthrough thinking, because once we know how it is done, everybody and their gutter spout cleaner will be able to do it. And we’ll soon have more breakthrough ideas than we can shake Harry Potter’s wand at, and that’s going to take the sheen off everything.

Having just spent several hours surfing on the topic, though, I’m not worried. Us chickens in the creative thinking business (that’s the word we use when we want to feminize/sanitize the idea of bloodying the nose of the status quo) are clearly as clueless as ever. Otherwise, we’d be able to do a better job of getting our stories straight even as we take one shot after another in the dark at a target that may or may not be there. (Remember what the young adept in the movie “The Matrix”—the one who was bending tableware with his telekinetic powers—said: “There is no spoon.”)

Because the most common feature that we so-called experts on breakthrough thinking seem to share is confusion on exactly what advice to offer people looking to us for a comforting, and helpful, word or two on breaking through their brain blocks.

When idealization is a bad habit
To illustrate, consider the potential for mental whiplash—or at least cognitive dissonance—for anyone who has just been told that “The No. 1 Habit of Highly Creative People” is solitude, and then is immediately told that “The No. 2 Creative Habit” is participation? That is, “connecting with others, being inspired by others, reading others, collaborating with others.” (In other words, having fusilli and tiramisu, and plenty of pinot noir, amid Latin music in a dimly lit banquet room!)

To be fair, I should point out that this breakthrough thinking guide did say that you shouldn’t try to have solitude and participation at the same time. That you should try to “balance” them. To which I say, again, “Good luck!” The problem when you start out trying to balance the settings and behaviors and circumstances that might lead to a breakthrough idea is that you are dangerously close to “idealizing” the process, and that’s a hobgoblin that can create a big trouble in breakthrough thinking territory. As Robert Fritz (a breakthrough thinking authority I really enjoy, probably because he shares my bias against philosophers) notes, “Consistency to the ideal thwarts the creative spirit of innovation. It limits the imagination. It puts the mind in jail. It imposes a synthetic construct on real life.” Yeah, verily, it does!

To “box” or not to “box”
What I found during my several hours of surfing on the topic of breakthrough thinking is that nothing has changed. We still don’t know how an idea that strikes us and/or others as radically fresh shows up in our awareness or how to make this a cookie-cutter process.

So those of us in the “innovative thinking industry” keep casting a wide, often conflicting net of ideas in the hopes that at least something we suggest will deliver a useful payoff for people who pay attention to us.

Ever since the nine-dot puzzle became popular in the late 1960s in creativity training seminars and books, “thinking outside the box” has been a common refrain. Then along comes a widely quoted article in Harvard Business Review that says forget about thinking outside the box. What you really need to do is “create a useful new box then think inside that.”

Just when we thought that suggesting to our business clients that asking their customers what they want could lead to a breakthrough idea, we get told that this is the wrong question. The right one: “What outcomes are you looking for?” Argues this author: “When you ask customers what they want, they respond with solutions (products, services features) they’ve already experienced. They can’t imagine new technologies or materials.”

Imagination is everything?
We get all lathered up about the importance of people using their imagination. We quote Einstein (“Imagination is everything.”) Vonnegut (“We are what we imagine ourselves to be.”) Picasso (“Everything you can imagine is real.”) Napoleon (“The human race is governed by its imagination.”) Jesse Jackson (“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it.”) And then feel ourselves shot out of the saddle by being reminded that “the notion that imagination is everything is just silly. It certainly is something, a critical part of the creative process. But imagination alone will lead you to be an empty dreamer without any possibility of making your vision become reality.”

Ah, sigh. To say it again, if breakthrough thinking was easy, everybody and their Tibetan Mastiff would be doing it.

Which is why when I read about NBC’s upcoming series, “Breakthrough,” I get a bit queasy. The promos say the ever-opportunistic Tony Robbins is going to take people who have been terribly down on their luck or suffered horrendous setbacks in their lives and show them in front of millions of viewers how to “make a Breakthrough.”

I hope he can. And does. Hope he succeeds smashingly with every person he tries it with. But to say it again, one final time, if breakthrough thinking was easy, everybody and their sweat lodge guru would be doing it.

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