Mark Batey Ph.D.

Working Creativity

How to Have Breakthrough Ideas

The art (and science) of breakthrough thinking.

Posted Jul 20, 2017

From Creative Commons
Source: From Creative Commons

What is the best way to encourage great ideas? How can we achieve the next breakthrough that will make a difference? Where does the eureka moment come from? These questions and many others have long vexed and perplexed researchers and industry.

We have often looked to stories surrounding great scientific discoveries for inspiration. Such as Archimedes streaking through the streets of Syracuse proclaiming “I have it!”, Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin or the chemist August Kekulé’s daydream of snakes biting one another’s tails leading him to realise that benzene must have a ring-like structure.

Kekule's Benzene Ring from Creative Commons
Source: Kekule's Benzene Ring from Creative Commons

Now science is cracking the processes that help deliver better creativity and innovation. Key to optimising the creative problem-solving process is understanding the vital mechanism by which original and useful ideas are produced – connections… Creative ideas are borne out of the fusion of existing ideas, thoughts and knowledge. The more complex and unorthodox the combinations, the greater chance of the idea leading to a significant innovation.

The mathematician Hermann von Helmholtz postulated a creative thinking process in 1896, which is not so dissimilar to the models of today and will form the basis for some simple steps to follow below:

1.    Problem-Finding – Great breakthroughs almost always start with the thoughtful identification of key questions, issues or challenges that need to be bested. Don’t jump into brainstorming without thoroughly applying your curiosity or seeking out key questions (and answers!) from diverse sources. In many areas, getting ‘hands-on’ and deeply engaging with users, products, processes and services helps to spur inspiration. The thinking tools of The Kipling Method or A Day in The Life can really help here.

2.    Priming and Preparation – Once a challenge, opportunity or problem has been identified it is vital to absorb deep knowledge about the area. Read far and wide, talk to experts and novices and also explore allied, but non-competing areas. In short… get immersed in the "problem". Research shows that it is not just focussed technical knowledge that boosts creativity, but less-relevant and tangential information can be the key. Which comes back to the creative connections mechanism – Focused knowledge, interacting with "unusual" information promotes more complex and unorthodox perspectives.

3.    Incubation – Deliberately make time to allow all that knowledge and insight to soak in, mash up, mix together and form those complex, unusual connections from which great ideas are born. Incubation is an active process too — talk to people, read more and see how everyday situations reflect back on your challenge. The secret to incubation is to start early and allow your thoughts to mingle — leaders can be coached on how to encourage creative incubation in their teams.

4.    Generate and Ideate – Linus Pauling, the double Nobel Laureate was alleged to have said “If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.” Great creativity requires great volume. Go for as many ideas as possible, involve a diverse team to spur yet more ideas, go exhaustive and leave sensibility, reason and prejudice at the front door. There are some powerful techniques to employ to maximise the generation process like Attribute Listing and Brainwriting. Leaders too have a huge role to play in setting the right conditions as I explained in a recent article. The time for careful and exhaustive criticality comes next…

Image from Creative Commons
Source: Image from Creative Commons

5.    Evaluate – The creative process usually involves the deliberate and slow application of doubt, judgement, critique, testing and reality to the bank of ideas. Think carefully about the criteria that are being applied to make the final selection of the ‘winning idea’. Too often brilliant ideas are rejected too early, when more development would have led to the big breakthrough. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Follow these simple steps (with a healthy dose of common-sense) and they will help you to apply the science of breakthrough thinking.

Dr Mark Batey is a creativity and innovation expert at Alliance Manchester Business School and loves to hear your stories of applying these approaches.

He helps individuals, teams and organisations to be more creative and innovative (

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