What Is Breakthrough Thinking?

A few years ago during one of my workshops, a participant had a problem that he wanted the class to help him with. The issue had to do with the disposal of wastewater in the plant where he worked. He and his operations team had been wrestling with the issue for many months. It was a tricky matter that had the potential to cost his company millions of dollars and significant goodwill. Things looked bleak.

As the engineer explained the problem to us, we sat there befuddled so we just began asking questions. One question lead to another which lead to another and so on. After about 15 minutes of Q&A, his problem still wasn’t apparent so he drew a diagram on a flipchart.

With the benefit of the visual aide, the group quickly grasped his predicament and what had led up to it. Moments later, one of the participants simply said, “Why don’t you reverse the flow of that pipe over there?” The engineer stood quietly for a moment, looked at the diagram, looked back at the class and then shouted, “We have been working on this problem for almost two years and no one has ever suggested that! Do you know what this means? This could solve our problem!” It was truly a Eureka moment and one that the engineer subsequently called a “watershed” event for the project.

The next day I spoke to the man who had suggested reversing the flow of the pipe and I asked him how he had come up with such a brilliant idea. He answered, “I don’t know.” Well that wasn’t too useful because it’s my job to understand how breakthrough thinking works and then to teach other people how to do it. So I persisted, “Something must have sparked you. Can you remember what it was?” After considering it for a few more moments he said, “Well in China, where I grew up, our government had a similar problem, but in that case, it had to do with the two great rivers in China, the Yellow River and The Yangzi River. This looked like the same problem, so I just suggested that he solve it the same way we solved it in China, by diverting the flow of one river into the other.”

 To me, that conversation was critical because it reaffirmed that breakthrough thinking isn’t about unexplained flashes of brilliance (although it can be). More often, breakthrough thinking is about asking questions, getting clear on the problem and then, finally, making connections to what you already know.

 Having spent 17 years in the advertising business, I’ve come to realize a few things. The first is that everyone is creative. The second is that lots of people don’t think they’re creative. And the third is that creativity (or what we’ll call breakthrough thinking) is a skill that anyone can develop.

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