| Home page | Training section | Tool Box |

« Breakthrough thinking »


Breakthrough thinking is for visionaries. You begin by realizing that your assumptions about how things are supposed to be are interfering with your giving serious thought to how things "might be". Robert Kennedy expressed this idea when he said: "Some men see things as they are and ask 'why?' while others see things that can be and ask 'why not?'."

Assumptions "pre judge" and suppose things are as they should be. In contradiction to that kind of prejudicial thinking, be curiose. That will allow you to rethink anything at all.

For example, take a look at something "ordinary" - like your coffee cup. You can spend a lifetime drinking coffee from cups and never wonder about them. Assumptions oblige us to ignore them - after all a cup is a cup! But wondering... about their use, design, color, material, size, backstory, cost, value or anything else will log you on to the creative process.

Breakthroughs will be the result of that process. One day, I dropped my coffee cup in my lap while driving my Jeep down the highway. I instantly but silently thanked its creative designer. One of those well-designed mugs with a snug lid specially made for the road, it fell to the floor and spilled nary a drop. I wish him his well-deserved fortune (as the market for spill-proof cups must be immense).

Breakthroughs come after we wonder.

Even if curiosity is a catalyst to creative thinking, most people aren't very curious says author Jeffrey Mitchell - who considers himself an evangelist for curiosity. He thinks the reason so few people work at being curious is that they assume curiosity is a by-product of a need rather than conscious work.

In fact most of us were discouraged from being too curious. Curiosity killed the cat! -Don't be so nosy! - Watch your Ps and Qs! - and that old saw: "Just mind you're your own beeswax!" are the thing we heard as children. And repeating them is exactly how to turn off a child's natural tendency to be inquisitive.

Mitchell says we believe that we'll automatically be curious when there's something to be curious about. Well the human mind works in the exact opposite manner. Rather than identify gaps in our knowledge for further inquiry, our brain fills in the blanks with assumptions and suppositions.

"We've always done that way!" assumes that it's the only or the best way to do something and stops further exploration. We have the tendency to form judgments first and ask questions later, if at all. We'll assume that we know what the client wants, what a spouse will answer or what the boss expects rather than question motives and intentions. "Never assume", says the wise man breaking up the word, "…because if you do, you'll make an "ass" out of "u" and out of "me".

Breaking through your limiting assumptions

Certainly, making assumptions is necessary as they enable us to function on a day-to-day basis. We'll assume the day will start with the sun rising in the east, that the car is where we left it the night before, that the buses will run on time, that our office building is still standing, et al. While these are not certain to be true, making the assumption lets us to plan our lives without constantly wondering about unknowns or re-inventing the wheel.

Making assumptions become a problem when we forget that they are simply a shorthand way for us to maneuver through our day. If we don't challenge our assumptions they are reinforced to become imprenetrable walls that continue to mask the full potential of an idea, a project, a situation, an event or an opportunity. Breakthroughs -by definition- come after breaking down the walls of our assumptions. The force needed to break through comes from curiosity. Click here to see your own personal limits.

The following technique can free you from limiting assumptions about ideas, beliefs or challenges that might be undermining your potential and performance without you knowing it. Take a personal inventory of your limits or a larger inventory of things limiting your project, company or community.

People tend to hold assumptions tightly, almost frozen in their mind. These will begin to "melt" when they are exposed to the light of day and the heat of logical thought. The thaw continues when an assumption ("The world is flat.") is phrased as a question ("How is the world flat?"). The question is now a hypothesis that can be tested as the mind opens to information. Answers to the question will bring ideas and they will allow further explorations. Breaks will first occur at an assumption's outer edges.

Openness and expansion are essential for genuine creativity. Mitchell suggests that we consciously ferret out the assumptions that interfere with breakthrough thoughts.


Breakthrough an assumption in easy 5 steps: 1. Recognize the assumption; 2. Record the assumption; 3. Translate the assumption into a question. 4. Seek out facts; 5. Challenge the assumption.

1. Recognize the assumption.

Become aware of personal, corporate or social assumptions by recognizing clues from your own or other people's body language, emotions and words. If a body is closed, tight and stiff, or if you and others automatically deride data that doesn't support what you believe, or if you feel threatened by information, it's likely you're making assumptions that something is true or right and you are consciously or subconsciously protecting them. Truth has stood the test of time and has no need to be defended. Airing out ideas should bring truth to light but the process is most often thwarted by our emotional attachments… our assumptions.

2. Record the assumption.

Creative people think with a pencil. Writing down your assumptions (or those you discover in others) makes them real and that is all the difference. Once it is documented, an assumption can be viewed objectively and tested. Being a creative thinker isn't just "pap" - it's work. Writing down and then studying assumptions creates distance between the observer and the observed. That distance allows one to benefit from a detached overview and permits multidimensional exploration for understanding… and change.

3. Translate the assumption into questions.

From why to why not. First you must paradigm shift into the curiosity mindset. In order to do this, ask questions like: "Why do I believe this?, "How did this belief become?" Or "Why do we think that way? Or do it this way?", "Could I be mistaken when I think about what's right and wrong?", "Can facts be falsified?", "Are there complimentary and contradictory facts?", "Does my experience support my belief?", "Where can I find other opinions?" "Who is doing it differently?" "What can limitless resources contribute?" etc., etc..

4. Seek out facts

Once you've posed a few clear questions, check out the facts. Start with google.com's 1.6 billion web pages and go from there. When asked how do we get a good idea, the powerful thinker Dr Linus Pauling answered: "Get a lot of ideas and throw out the bad ones." Look in non-habitual places for "far out" relationships. Look for patterns and synchronicities in dissimilar data. Find indications of order, beauty, joy or humor, or of human implication; remember, just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean there is no conspiracy. Follow your heartfelt intuitions and be ready for the unexpected and the serendipitous.

5. Challenge the assumption

If you find that your assumptions aren't substantiated, get real curious about what other ideas are supported by the "false truth" and its believers and liars. Innovative breakthroughs will be found just past those limiting fakes. Careful though, the status quo is powerful foe.

Refer to Strategic Thinking to learn 5 roles you can play when getting information from the unknown. Strategy is required because the best places to ferret out new ideas are at the fringes of science, art and society, i.e. in the wilds of Nature.

Home page | Training section | Tool Box |