3 Ways to Systematically Come Up with Breakthrough Ideas

Every organisation and every leader that you talk to today, wants to build a culture of innovation and a breakthrough product as soon as possible.

However, if we look closely, there are three ways to come up with an idea that has the potential to become a breakthrough innovation:

  1. Imagination
  2. Insights
  3. Challenging current assumptions

Lets talk about all the three in a bit more detail.


This is probably the way all of us think that we will come across an idea that truly has the potential to become a breakthrough innovation. This is exactly how Einstein developed his theory of relativity. He used to imagine what it would be like to travel alongside a light beam and from this thought experiment came about one of the most profound and innovative breakthrough in science – The Theory of Relativity.

So, it is quite possible for someone sitting in their garage to imagine through thought experiments and come up with ideas for breakthrough innovations.

However, in my experience, this is rare. Though almost all breakthrough ideas require the use of imagination at various stages, I find that people coming up with the breakthrough idea, just through their use of imagination is rare.


The second way for someone to come up with a breakthrough idea is through insights.

Insight is the capacity to gain an accurate and deep understanding of someone or something.
In my experience, it is easier to systematically gain insights about our customers, their likes, dislikes, attitudes, needs and wants, as long as we are able to look at and understand what drives our customers behaviours – why they do what they do. We can do this by following them around, having cameras installed in their rooms or asking them questions about what they did and why they did it.
We would still need the ability to connect multiple dots (information) together in a way that leads to an insight. So, we still need some imagination to be able to create this connection.
You also gain insights by doing a lot of work trying to understand or solve a problem that seems to be difficult for you get around and then when you are in a state when you are away from the problem and suddenly you get an insight that helps you solve the problem. This is the Eureka way of getting insights that can unlock new potential and help us come up with a breakthrough idea.

Challenging Assumptions: 

This approach to coming up with breakthrough ideas is possibly the easiest way to systematize the process of developing breakthrough ideas. So, lets delve a bit deeper here.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Taversky have shown clearly and categorically through their research that as humans we all have biases and mental models that we use to navigate the world around us. Which means that all of us operate with a set of assumptions and beliefs about everything around us and how things around us work.

This gives us two excellent places to start our search for breakthrough ideas.

Challenging our Own assumptions:

This is one area which is totally in our control. One way that we can continue to challenge our assumptions is by asking questions that not only unearth our assumption but also help in challenging them. Some interesting questions that we can use to do this could be:

  1. What we think about our customers? Is that true?
  2. What kind of customers do we have? Is that the best kind of customers we could have?
  3. What do we think about what we are doing? What our vision is? Is that the best vision that we could have?
  4. Why we are doing what we are doing? What else could we do to achieve the same results?
  5. What would it mean if we were to do this same thing but at a 10x or a 25x scale?
  6. What would it mean if we were to do this at a fraction of cost that we currently do it for?
  7. What would we do if the top 10% of our customers stopped giving us business?
  8. What would we do if our delivery model became obsolete?
  9. What would we do if we were to lay off all our sales teams?
  10. What would we do if we were banned by the government to do what we do in the country that we do it in?
  11. What would we do if we wake up tomorrow and have no cash in our banks?

These are some examples of questions that will force us to think about something that we take for granted.

Then there are other ways for us to challenge our assumptions and come up with potential breakthrough ideas that is simple yet profound:

  • Products to Services or Services to products
  • Outright selling to subscriptions or Subscriptions to Out-right selling
  • Going from mass-market to premium or Going from premium to mass-market
  • From selling to fortune 100’s to startups or From selling to startups to fortune 100’s

If you notice, this is just about trying to figure out if we could do exactly the opposite or reverse of what we are currently doing. This forces us to challenge and break all our assumptions. If we try to answer these questions on a regular basis (quarterly or half-yearly or at least annually), we create the opportunity to come up with breakthrough ideas every time we do this exercise.

Challenging our customers assumptions:

Challenging our assumptions is difficult itself, it is even more difficult to challenge the assumptions of our customers. It is for this very reason that not many people are doing that, just like we don’t do it very often. So, when you do it well, the chances of coming up with a potentially breakthrough idea is very good. Some questions that you could ask of your customers, that can help you identify the assumptions that your customers are working under could be:

  1. Why do you buy from us ? What are we truly good at?
  2. Why only so much and why not much more or much less?
  3. Who do you think are our competitors?
  4. What do you think are our core capabilities?
  5. Who are your top competitors? Why?
  6. What are your key partners? Why?
  7. What is your vision for your own business? Why?
  8. What can we do to significantly (10x?) increase the business that you give us?
  9. Is there a problem that you are struggling with, which if solved would give you the biggest advantage in your market?

Now, it is easy to get carried away when asking some of these questions. We need to be aware of the fact that not every customer is open to answering questions like these. Not many employees of our customers would be able to answer many of these questions.

Also, we need to understand that while we may want to challenge their assumptions and not challenge them personally. There is a small difference between being curious and challenging your customers assumptions and being annoying.

So, when we are in a situation where it is not easy to get access to someone from our customer’s office who are willing to answer our questions, we can use the power of observation to be able to identify the assumptions that your customers are operating under.

We could actually look at what the customer is doing in their business & research where they are spending their time, money and effort. When you then ask yourself, why is your customer doing this and compare it with where their competitors are spending their time, money and efforts, there is a good chance that you can identify the assumptions under which your customer is operating under. If you find that their assumption is flawed, you can go ahead and challenge the same (in a way to explore with them and allow them to come to the conclusion).

What you could do is to ideate within your team and come up with a product or service that could potentially help your customers break out of their assumptions. If you can’t do that, at least bring the assumptions and the flawed nature of them to your customer’s attention and you would have earned their trust.


It is important to understand that if we want to consistently come up with breakthrough innovations, we need to define a process through which we can systematically come up with potentially breakthrough ideas.

In my opinion,

the fastest way to come up with breakthrough ideas is to find time to challenge our assumptions. Click To Tweet

To Be on the Safe Side

to be on the safe sideMore creative ideas and innovations have been killed by these six words than by anything else.

There have been enough studies that have shown that as humans, we are more loss averse than we are open to gains. So, if we truly want creativity to thrive in our organizations, we need to find a way to circumvent this strong human tendency.

Some ideas on how to accomplish this are:

  • Set Clear expectation when defining the problem statement about what you wish to accomplish. If you are looking at coming up with a breakthrough idea, make it clear that it is ok to err on the risky side than to play it safe. Make it clear that you are setting up experiments and going after breakthrough ideas and so temporary set-backs are acceptable as long as they take you towards the breakthrough solutions.
  • Banish these words from the vocabulary of the project team or even better would be to set aside  a bowl where you collect 50$ from anyone who utters these words and at the end of the day party together with what has been collected. If there was nothing collected, party anyways as you are on your way to coming up with truly creative ideas. If you are a tightly knit team or want to be one, make people uncomfortable when they start uttering these words by staring at them and making faces. This will also add to the fun quotient of the team.

Do you have any other suggestions on how to avoid erring on this and remain truly creative to come up with breakthrough ideas?

Please share them with us so we can all learn.

PS: I found a very interesting post titled: “How our Brains Work when We are being Creative”


PBTO12: Making Breakthrough Innovations Happen with @PorusMunshi

Who is on the show today:

In today’s episode, we have Porus Munshi, author of the best selling book “Making Breakthrough Innovations Happen”.

Why is he on the show

I have worked with Porus on an innovation project and from experience know that he is a great coach and has the uncanny ability to guide the teams to achieve their goals without any compromises. His understanding of the breakthrough or leapfrog innovation process is very deep and I have learnt a lot in every conversation that i have had with him over the past few years. .

What are we talking about

In this episode, we talk about making breakthrough innovations happen or enabling leapfrog performances.
In this freewheeling conversation we talk about
  • leapfrog innovation and how you could make leapfrogs both in your organization and in your personal lives.
  • We will also talk about how average organizations with average people can achieve extra-ordinary performances.
  • How Process Beats Talent
  • Ichchha Shakti (Power of Purpose), Gyan Shakti (Power of Knowledge) & Kriya shakti (Power of action) and how all the three play a critical role in any innovation project
  • How it is easier to do a 10x leap in performance than attempting a 2x leap
  • What is the biggest limiting factor for peak performance in individuals and organizations
  • What is an insight and how can insights lead to breakthrough leaps in performances
  • We talk about the role of a leader in an organization
  • How we could implement the same principles of leap frog innovation in our own lives and achieve extraordinary results. 

We had a great conversation and I learnt a lot from Porus.

You can connect with Porus on twitter.

Buy his book

You can also buy his book on amazon by clicking on the book image below. This is an affiliate link.

PS: Please do leave a rating or a review on iTunes if you really liked the episode 

You can also watch his TEDx talk titled “Redesigning Life”.




Reframing Failure as Iteration Fosters More Innovation

One of the biggest hurdles in fostering a culture of innovation in an organization is the fear of failure. 

This is one of the most critical aspects of a culture. The fear of failure creates a lot of additional hurdles in the innovation process. 

  • No Breakthrough Innovation: The biggest impact on the innovation process that the fear of failure can have is that this almost ensures that there will be no breakthrough innovation coming out of the innovation process. Any breakthrough innovation requires at some stage for the team to decide to follow an insight/idea that is unconventional or against the common wisdom. This involves some amount of risk that this might not work out and could lead to a failure. The fear of this failure will ensure that the insights/ideas that are the safest bets would be consistently chosen, which could result in average, small scale incremental innovation coming out of the process. 
  • Big Failures: The fear of failure could also lead to spectacular failures. The fear of failure stops employees from raising the red-flag at the first instance when they realize that the project/product is not working out. This leads to a situation where everyone knows that the project is a failure but no one wants to be the one to admit it, which then results in continued effort and resources being put in to the project, when the project should have been acknowledged as a failure and either closed or a pivot done to continue to vie for success. 
  • Lack of learning: This fear of failure also ensures that there is not much risk being taken and hence, not many projects fail, which also means that there is not much learning happening either. As we all know that failure is a much better teacher than success.
  • Lack of Trust on Leaders: Primarily the fear of failure indicates that there is a lack of trust for the leaders of the organization, which by itself almost ensures that there are even bigger challenges that the organization needs to address in order to remain relevant and innovative. 

So, what can we do to create a culture where the fear of failure is replaced by a culture of learning and course corrections. 

Re-Frame Failure as Iterations: Re framing Failure as Iterations provides the employees the necessary cushion to explore slightly more riskier insights/ideas when going after innovation. 

As with most of the challenges relating to culture, leaders should start talking and behaving in a way that not only tells the employees that it is OK to go after big challenges and fail now and then as long as they are able to admit failure, learn from the failure and do so quickly and cheaply, continue to pivot and address the challenge through pursuing different insight/ideas. 

This simple re-framing also creates the culture of experimentation, iterations and pivots. This also reduces the overall cost of innovation, speeds up the innovation process and at the same time creates the possibility for breakthrough solutions coming through the process. 

PS: Here is a video where children have re-framed failure to iteration and not only fare better but thrive in their schools. 



What is your opinion? What would you do to address fear of failure in your organization? Do share your thoughts.. 

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