Step Outside Your Usual Way Of Thinking And Make A Breakthrough

Our brains are amazingly elastic . . . when we choose to stretch them. Here’s an example: Researchers wondered what would happen if college students were given glasses that made the world appear to be upside down. Those given the unusual perspective struggled at first. But in about a month, the students could do everything just fine upside down . . . including reading their text books and writing their papers.

Most people, by contrast, choose not to stretch their brains . . . even when they can gain something valuable. When no stretching happens, old ideas turn into tendencies . . . which become comfortable habits of walking in the same paths . . . and our footsteps wear the paths into familiar dry moats so deep that we cannot see any other choices.

When we stick with what we’ve been doing without further thought, we likewise often experience stalls, ways of thinking and operating that keep us from making important breakthroughs.

If you are in such a dry moat, making it deeper as you cover the same ground again and again, how can you develop the vision to escape? People have another trait that can help that’s often described as: Monkeys see and other monkeys do. People are fortunately great imitators.

But what should you imitate? It’s obviously easy to pick a bad model when trying to improve. Don’t depend on the advocate’s confidence: Everyone is typically convinced that his or her way is the only way.

How can you correctly judge the value of one alternative practice versus another? Professional experts in making breakthrough know that the proof of the pudding is in the eating: What are the results that are gained from one practice versus another?

By looking carefully at what others do, how much effort and how many resources are involved, and what the results are, breakthrough advisors learn that some practices are much more productive than others. Next, such advisors encourage starting with a small-scale, low-risk test to see what’s possible. From the results, the practice can be confirmed or invalidated.

Here’s where it gets interesting: Most people are convinced that no one outside of their field or area of endeavor could possibly make any contributions to creating a breakthrough. The truth is just the opposite: Breakthroughs are most likely to come from people outside the field.

It’s because they don’t know all of the rules of why this “couldn’t” or that “shouldn’t” work that makes outsiders open to seeing what’s missing and what should be deleted from the current ways of operating.

Rocketry provides one such example. The American military wanted to reduce the weight of one of its high-performance rockets by several hundred pounds. Engineers couldn’t see any way to do it. Make the rocket casing any thinner, and you might have fiery leaks that would result in disaster. Use a different propellant and you might blow up the rocket through unstable ignition.

One day while the engineers worked on the problem, a janitor came in to sweep up and empty the waste baskets. The janitor overheard their conversation and thought about the problem. Before leaving, the janitor interrupted the engineers to suggest that the company simply not paint the rocket.

Voila! That suggestion provided almost all of the needed weight reduction. The opportunity had been in front of the engineers all the time, but they couldn’t see the solution due to their habitual focus on the technical details of rocket science. But as they sometimes say, solving a problem may not be rocket science after all.

Sometimes, the breakthrough solution entails a wider body of knowledge than a non-expert (such as the janitor in the example) can supply through simple inspection of the situation. In those cases, it’s enormously valuable to look beyond the current discipline that’s guiding the thinking to consider the perspective of another problem-solving discipline.

For instance, the food industry learned new ways to improve quality and safety by studying the ingredient mixing methods that engineers in the chemical industry had been using for years to ensure reliable chemical reactions. The insights that led to this solution came from applying physics rather than biology, the science which food technologists are quite expert in and usually focus on.

For major problems of identifying ways to gain vastly better results, a kind of breakthrough most of us would like to have more often, any discipline involving well-developed analytical and decision-making processes can help.

As an example, athletes improved their performances a lot by applying what neuroscientists had learned about breakthrough physical performance: Take half your training time to change psychology and rehearse success mentally, and performance is much better than if you only train to be stronger and faster.

After you learn to apply a number of other disciplines to make breakthroughs in your area of interest, you will also begin to see new ways to create hybrid solutions that combine the best of both worlds.

An example of that thinking can be seen in the ways that physicians have learned about employing the principles of manufacturing quality-improvement processes to delivering high-quality health care to design processes that lead to a lot fewer errors and delight patients.

As an example, several people now have to independently verify what surgical procedure is to be done before anyone makes an incision, beginning with the patient and ending with the surgeon’s staff.

Learn from enough helpful disciplines, and you can gain a more encompassing perspective: Draw breakthrough principles from lots of examples where individuals and groups of people perform difficult, important tasks almost perfectly every time. Then, apply those near-perfect principles to the situation at hand.

When such an application occurs, it’s not unusual to improve results by 20, 30, or even 40 times while still spending the same amount of time, money, and effort.

Let’s look at an example to help you appreciate how such an exciting, important conceptual journey can begin and develop. My colleague, Professor Al Hennon, originally became a teacher because he wanted to help kids.

Due to his educational acumen, he was drafted into various administrative roles, rising eventually to become the superintendent of schools for the city of Massillon, Ohio where he led 750 employees and managed a $ 40 million annual budget.

In that role, he began to wonder if another perspective would make him a more effective educational leader: “Can public schools be run with a business philosophy?” He was intrigued to see if educational leaders could balance nurturing students and accomplishing all tasks in more effective ways.

Having long wanted to earn a doctorate, Professor Hennon decided to go a nontraditional route and study how business leadership principles could be adapted to improving educational administration. He chose Rushmore University for his studies. Here is what he learned:

“I have found in my study that business and education are not dissimilar. The terms we use and the processes we engage in may be different. However, the fundamental way we approach our businesses and the foundation that guides our organizations are very much the same. The principles of management and leadership are the same; only the wrapping is different.

“If I can raise expectations, build capacity to improve, and improve results, I can be a success in private enterprise or public education. I am now able to take the principles of management, leadership, and consulting from the business perspective and articulate them in the language of education.

“I have found how critical it is to be able to take information from a little-known source, to learn it, and then to translate it into useful knowledge in order to help other organizations.”

New opportunities soon presented themselves. After graduating in 2005, Professor Hennon agreed to serve as Rushmore’s professor for educational administration. He also gained a glimpse of many other career opportunities through his doctoral studies.

As a result, he changed careers and now works as an educational consultant for an architectural firm that designs schools. In this new role, he combines three disciplines in new ways to advance education: architectural principles, educational administration, and business efficiency.

In these two new roles, Professor Hennon has been able to help other educators to step outside the four walls of their educational disciplines to draw on other disciplines to serve students and their communities better.

Professor Hennon is very encouraged that such multidisciplinary training will be valuable to current and future generations of educational administrators as greater economic fluctuations and shifting demographics present new challenges that require being more flexible.

The educational discipline will help to pick the right activities to emphasize, and the business discipline will provide tools for adjusting resources in those areas where costs need to be cut back.

Imagine how much better our world will be when each of us learns at least one additional way of improving performance and adds that much more perspective to what we do now.

Where will you gain that knowledge and experience?

Donald W. Mitchell is a professor at Rushmore University, an online school, where he advises many doctoral candidates who wish to study more than one discipline to make performance breakthroughs with scarce resources. For more information about ways to engage in fruitful lifelong learning at Rushmore to increase your effectiveness and improve your career, visit