Bring Your Breakthrough Ideas to Life

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Cyril Bouquet, Jean-Louis Barsoux, and Michael Wade for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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In 2003 the Indian environmental researcher Narayana Peesapaty spotted an alarming trend: Groundwater levels in the region of Hyderabad were falling precipitously. He examined rainfall records but found nothing to explain the drop. Looking deeper, he discovered that the culprit was a change in agricultural practices. Many area farmers had abandoned millet—a traditional crop increasingly regarded as “the poor man’s food”—in favor of rice, a thirsty crop that requires 60 times as much water to grow. And because they had access to heavily subsidized electricity, the farmers were continuously pumping water into their fields.

Peesapaty tried to influence agricultural policies by documenting the problem in government reports, to no avail. So he looked instead for ways to boost demand for millet. He hit on the idea of turning it into “edible cutlery”—a solution that could attack not just the groundwater deficit but also the scourge of plastic waste. Peesapaty quit his job to pursue the project. A decade later, after a video he posted about the cutlery went viral, orders began pouring in. Two crowdfunding campaigns exceeded their targets by more than twelvefold, and the first corporate orders shipped in 2016. It’s too soon to know whether groundwater levels have stabilized. But many farmers have already resumed growing the more sustainable crop, and to further boost production, the government declared 2018 the National Year of Millets.

As Peesapaty’s story demonstrates, there are two potential routes to any solution: conformity (in this case, trying to use established channels to affect policy) and originality. The first is adequate for many everyday challenges. But for thornier problems, more-divergent thinking may be required.

As academics with a long-standing interest in attention, sense making, innovation, and digital transformation, we have spent the past decade researching pioneering thinkers and changemakers in a wide range of fields, from entrepreneurs to medics to chefs. Our work with corporate clients has included running top-team innovation workshops, leading full-scale acceleration programs, and orchestrating enormous transformation journeys. We have also interviewed and surveyed hundreds of executives involved in innovation efforts. Through these efforts we have identified recurrent patterns in the evolution of breakthrough ideas and constructed a five-part framework for developing them and ensuring their survival.

Unconventional thinkers focus their attention closely and with fresh eyes, step back to gain perspective, imagine unorthodox combinations, experiment quickly and smartly, and navigate potentially hostile environments outside and within their organizations. The challenge throughout is to overcome biases and mental models that may constrain creativity or doom a great idea.

In this article we’ll describe the five elements of the framework and explore how digital tools can augment them. But first let’s look at why game-changing innovation remains so difficult despite organizational and societal pressure for transformative results.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article

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