Breakthroughs are easy to chart in hindsight, but what does it take to coax them to life—and bring them to fruition?
After years of helping individuals and teams shake up their thinking in Deloitte Greenhouse labs, Kim Christfort, U.S. leader of the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience, has learned a thing or two about setting the stage for genuine breakthroughs. Much of that learning is captured in the Breakthrough Manifesto, a framework that codifies an overarching philosophy and methodology for generating new ideas and higher levels of performance.
The principles of the manifesto are encapsulated in 10 pithy expressions, offering memorable directives such as “Strip away everything,” “Make a mess,” and “Enlist a motley crew” that serve as both inspiration and strategy for moving beyond persistent, thorny issues. “They provide teams a way to talk about what’s buried and challenging,” Christfort explains.
She has helped hundreds of executives make breakthroughs, usually with a specific objective such as digital transformation and with some baked-in aspirations such as pushing people to think beyond the status quo, getting teams to work better together, or removing silos. These challenges often are more about people than about business decisions; the goal is to get to the heart of human issues to clear the path for new ways of thinking, Christfort says.
In Christfort’s experience, many executives find the most room for growth—and make the most progress—by leaning in on three principles in particular: Strip away everything, Enlist a motley crew, and Live with the problem.
Strip away everything. Set aside everything you think you know. Assumptions, beliefs, and dogma are the enemy. “Expertise can become a liability for successful leaders,” Christfort explains. “The more experience executives have, the more likely they are to embrace what has worked previously and get stuck. It’s harder to question the orthodoxies and long-held beliefs they have accumulated throughout their careers.”
Enlist a motley crew. Go beyond the usual suspects. Sparks fly when thinkers, domains, and outside disciplines collide. Research is now definitive: Valuable breakthroughs are more likely when an authentically diverse team is deeply invested and genuinely engaged. “In the broadest possible sense, teams need diversity—of gender, race, age, personal experience, work style, and career level—to get to more interesting and insightful outcomes,” Christfort says. This requires leaders to actively enlist a motley crew, she adds. Bring everyone into the conversation and leverage different perspectives and viewpoints.
Live with the problem. Avoid rushing to the solution; better things come to those who explore before acting. Particularly counterintuitive for problem-solving executives, the idea here is to slow down and let ideas percolate. “Many executives have been successful precisely because they can solve quickly, move forward, and deliver results,” Christfort observes. “Spending the time to diagnose and dig in is hard for take-charge executives.” When issues are complex—with many stakeholders, imperfect information, an unclear understanding of the problem, or no obvious answer—deeper exploration can provide context and ensure teams are solving for root causes.
Through the Lens of COVID-19
Of the remaining seven principles, “Get real” has shifted the most, taking on new meaning and importance as COVID-19 has reoriented personal and professional lives.
Get real. Shed the glossy veneer and bring your authentic, gnarly, bruised human self. Magic happens when we’re personal, connected, and real. Truly breakthrough ideas and mindset shifts require a high level of authenticity, a diminished distinction between “work” and “real” identity. “Virtual collaboration has thrown open the door for people to get real,” Christfort says. “Kids, dogs, and deliveries in the middle of video calls give us all more permission to be human.” The tenets apply even for teams that are attempting to make breakthroughs virtually. “The guiding principles remain the same, but how we bring them to life has evolved significantly,” she says. “Most people are actively adjusting how they think and act. Luckily, the environment demands and encourages creative thinking—it’s made for breakthroughs.”
Pick Principles Wisely
Christfort emphasizes that for each person and team, certain principles will resonate the most. “Post those principles in plain sight and use the language in conversation to shift the discussion, redirect the group, and change your culture—whatever you need to gain the most ground. The principles are ultimately meant to guide in-the-moment personal behavior and team dynamics—for the good of everyone.
In addition to the four principles above, the Breakthrough Manifesto offers these principles:
Silence your cynic. Suspend disbelief and assume everything’s possible. No great breakthrough was born of a naysayer. The voice of the cynic may be the loudest or the first, but don’t mistake it for wisdom. Toss out limits, broaden the definition of “possible,” then make the best idea happen.
Make a mess. Stop perfecting and just start making, doing, trying. A prototype is worth a thousand discussions. When ideas are half-baked, and it’s not exactly clear where they’re headed, it’s time to stop planning, roll up your sleeves, and try some things on for size. The odds of a truly seismic breakthrough increase—and it’s more fun.
Check your edge. Ask yourself, “Is this truly unexpected?” Surprise is the mother of inspiration. Constantly ask, “What would be the extreme here?” That might mean relentlessly pushing for better ideas or just shaking up company culture. Christfort points out: “If you’re trying to improve fitness, you can’t keep doing the same exercise. You have to keep pushing yourself.”
Don’t play “nice.” Call out the elephants. The sooner you get the truth on the table, the faster you get results. While everyone is ignoring the elephant in the room, the 800-pound gorilla will take over. Stop dancing around issues. Give everyone permission to call out anything—and have the courage to do something.
Dial up the drama. Create a full-sensory theatrical experience. Emotional narrative journeys are how humans have made meaning since forever. Spark emotional and intellectual engagement with stories and metaphor. People think about facts but feel drama in their bones in a way that translates to passion and momentum.
Make change. Shatter the plan. Evolve. Make a dent. Nothing matters unless it matters. Relentlessly question goals, plans, and breakthroughs required. Pivot and iterate, evolve and grow, and don’t claim victory until it’s clear the plan is really making an impact.
Watch the video and learn more about the Breakthrough Manifesto here.
—by Kris Pettersen, writer, Deloitte Insights in The Wall Street Journal