How breakthrough can happen, not by accident, but by design

For expert cultures, innovation is about turning ideas into products. And for high-performing achiever cultures, innovation is about the management of innovation as a process. This is all great, and all of this is needed.

However innovator/shaper cultures, those cultures that in and of themselves create competitive advantage, understand the crucial difference: that innovation is born from a co-creative frequency.

Let me try to explain. Innovation in opportunist, expert and achiever cultures is based on a horizontal movement, i.e. generating ideas and products that are extensions and expansions of the existing paradigm. As they move from opportunist to expert, and then to achiever, horizontal movement increases in scale due to the greater application of resource and the more efficient and effective leveraging of infrastructure.

This horizontal movement is born from an ideation paradigm. The problem with this approach is that innovation is reduced to a numbers game, i.e. we brainstorm in volume in the hope that we stumble across a few gems. Innovations are therefore forged from accidents. It is of course important to remember that some of the greatest innovations to transform our world were accidents, e.g., penicillin, saccharin, microwaves…

For me, ideation is a one-dimensional approach to innovation. Ideas are more often than not generated through the lens of the dominant culture and then selected and implemented through the lens of this dominant culture. This endeavour progresses from the lone inventor through to teams assigned to the research and development of new products, and expands to include marketing and sales – the latter hopefully integrating a deeper understanding of customer wants and needs.

Innovation in the fourth realm of the innovator/shaper culture, however, is no longer limited to ideation-based activity. Rather, it transitions into an insight-based phenomenon – a vertical movement to a meta-position that enables the innovator/shaper to reorder what came before.

This is innovation by design, not by accident. It is based on the post-conventional capacity to catalyse creative insight and collective breakthrough at will and with skill.

Let me give you an example. Last year two creative-catalysts from nowhere, the company I lead, were holding a four-day process in Patagonia for one of our clients. This process required three months of preparation before a team of eight were taken to an isolated venue. In this final deep-dive the answer to the question they were quest-ing into was designed to reveal itself in a collective moment of breakthrough. In this particular instance, this breakthrough was anticipated to take place at 3.19 on the afternoon of the fourth and final day.

As you would expect, when this prediction was set on the first day everyone thought we were joking. Then as time passed and we stayed true to our prediction, energy and tension started to increase.

When the breakthrough happened one of the team remembered to check the time. It was 3.19 pm.

It is not always this precise. It is more common for the final collective breakthrough to take place within 20–30 minutes of our target prediction. I like to think this is not a bad tolerance level in the overall scheme of things.

However, what is more important to note, is that they were not asked to generate their top three options and, subsequently, to choose the best one. Instead, it was about catalysing a moment of collective breakthrough where there was a deep and shared knowing that this is the answer. And, moreover, this methodology can be applied to product, service, business model, go-to-market, strategy, team and cultural breakthroughs.

To catalyse breakthrough, leaders need to understand how innovation is an output of our creativity, and how creativity is an outcome of our level of consciousness.

At its essence, innovation is about successfully bringing ‘the new’ to the world. In a business context, successful refers to the commercialisation (scaling and replicating) of ‘the new’. In a research context, it refers to the acceptance and application of ‘the new’ by wider peer groups. In a social context, successful innovations are measured through impact, progress and/or sustainability.

So if innovation is about bringing the new to the world, then creativity is about bringing ‘the new’ to mind. And let’s dispel the myth that creativity is about idea generation, brainstorming, poetry, or even the Arts in general. They are all outcomes or outputs of creative processes, but they are not creativity itself.

Creativity is the dance between what we know and what we don’t know, and it is through this dance that we make meaning of the world around us, making the unknown knowable, the unconscious conscious, and the invisible visible. This dance is fundamental to the emergence of newness (new to me and/or new to the world) in all disciplines. Yet we’ve never worked out how to teach it in schools or to actively develop it in organisations.

Moreover, there is an art to actively bringing the new to mind, for our everyday, ego-consciousness hates to be out of control, preferring to keep us within the comfort zone of what we already know. The problem with this is that we then flat-line through life, doing what we’ve always done.

The challenge is to awaken particular states and qualities of mind that help our creativity flourish, and to interrupt those states and qualities of mind that kill our creativity. To do this we need to first raise our level of self, relational and systemic awareness; and then tap into a wider collective intelligence.

This is why I view teams, communities and organisations as conscious organisms. They have collective awareness (and blindness). They have their own sense of subjectivity i.e. their way of making meaning of the world. They have common emotions and moods. They feel enlivened and awake, or tired and asleep. And they have their own executive control systems.

We therefore need to call forward a new and next generation of subtle leadership skills that can tune groups and collectives to frequencies that expand their everyday consciousness. Catalysing these frequencies is key to releasing the co-creative potential of teams and organisations, so they can generate and accelerate innovation, and shape futures we all want to move towards.

Dr Nick Udall is co-founder and CEO of nowhere, a founding member and the current Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership, and the author of Riding the Creative Rollercoaster (published by Kogan Page).