Light Bulb

Aha’s.  Light bulbs. The fog lifting.

These are all images for those elusive breakthroughs that we all want as we lead our organizations.  They rarely come on command, as attractive as it may be for us to think we can conjure them up.

But we can do more than just wait hopefully.  The best breakthroughs usually come when we get people from different functional backgrounds into an engaging conversation whose purpose is to explore new points of view and find new perspectives.

One of my favorite examples of this was shown on a very popular edition of Nightline years ago. In it, Ted Koppel’s gang watched a group of industrial designers from IDEO, a leading design firm, at work.  One of the many fascinating drivers of their constructive creativity was the diversity in the room – a former med student sat next to a marketing guy who sat next to an anthropologist. (Click here to see the episode.)

Why is this principle true?  I think it’s largely because different backgrounds spur unanticipated connections between the perspectives of the group.  My friend Eugenio Grandi, of the UK-based consultancy Quarto, calls these perspectives “hilltops.” That’s a vivid description of what each person’s background and experience provides: a perspective that affects what’s in view.

The implication for planning and implementing direction is pretty simple: as Tom Paterson says, “Breakthrough is horizontal.” In other words, if you want to find those hidden insights that may drive your organization’s future direction and its ability to bring the vision to life, be sure to involve people from across organizational boundaries.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that if you’re frustrated with the level of creativity in your plans, look at who is involved.  Are they from many different functional parts of the organization? Do they represent the interests of customers, partners, suppliers, employees, and even competitors?  If not, maybe breakthrough is just outside the meeting’s door looking for an invitation.