We are an easily mislead species, with the fault going most often to, you guessed it, ourselves. Our belief in the big leap is one pervasive example and it goes like this: We get a concept in our head that sounds good -- so good, in fact, that pretty soon we start treating it as a fait accompli. Never mind that we haven't sorted out the details. Forget that the whole concept might be flat out wrong. We go all-in on our belief that it's possible. Whatever you call it -- the breakthrough innovation, the paradigm shifter, the so-called game changer, or, as we are wont to sometimes refer to it, the quantum leap -- pay attention when you hear it or hear yourself saying it. Because rather than make your dreams real, these phantoms can be your undoing.
The Shaky Idea of the Big Idea
One thing worth noting about this wistful notion of the breakthrough is that it is almost always applied in the rearview. In other words, we are most often gazing backwards when we characterize something as game changing. Indeed, it's only in the rearview that we are able to knit together a neat little narrative that makes all the time, trials, and tribulations sound as though their collective outcome was inevitable from the start. (Turns out we do exactly the same thing when it comes to deciding who gets the credit.)
The myth of the paradigm shifter -- person, thing, or way -- is a bad thing for lots of reasons, but the greatest is that it mutes the countless steps taken both forward and back that in truth are the very things that add up to the big change we call quantum. To put a finer point on it, it's instructive to learn that we actually misuse the term quantum itself. Indeed, learning its true meaning just might help us to course correct and recalculate the leaps we dream of and attempt.
The Power of the Little
Quantum is a scientific term simply ported into popular language and gradually given a skewed meaning. Rather than big, in science quantum refers to small, as in the smallest possible change that can be made to a system. It also refers to change that happens seemingly randomly through a process of making choices -- many choices. It turns out that the scientific definition of a quantum leap isn't all that far off from how true innovation occurs -- a process that the most adept, successful, and perpetual innovators agree on.
Among the sources I explored for my second book, The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity, I conducted in-depth interviews with 66 MacArthur Fellows, recipients of the popularly-termed Genius Award. It's the only honor given for exceptional creativity and given regardless of field. Its winners include business people, scientists, those who lead social movements, and yes, those whose creativity gets applied to the arts. What they all agreed on was this: Any breakthrough they'd ever been a part of was a result of a gradual, often random, and definitely back-and-forth accumulation of smaller ideas, one laying upon the next, or even altering or eliminating the previous ideas. There were no lightning strikes.
They also agreed that such ideas occurred not far away (as in requiring a massive leap), but far closer to home than we commonly believe, in a zone MacArthur Fellow Stu Kauffman calls the adjacent possible. The concept is quite simply -- indeed, almost smack yourself on the side of the head -- obvious once pointed out. Simply by habitually venturing outside the borders of your known world and into the space that lies just beyond and adjacent to it, you can tap the most powerful force for shaping new thoughts.
It works like this: Every time you step outside your borders, you can't help but see something new -- breakthrough isn't the point, new is. Each time you come back inside your edges, you cannot help but see differently. Stu and others have experienced that the cumulative habit of coming to the edge in this way, over and over again, is the true power source that actually expands the possible beyond what was previously known. Pretty cool, and pretty darn simple.
More Than Ideas: People
The other thing the best innovators know is this: The more ideas the better -- the better the range, the better the refinement, the more truthful the testing, the higher the odds of success and sustained upside. More ideas are quite simply, and rather quickly, beyond the range of one single person. Therefore, achieving a quantum leap -- that is, in the popular sense -- actually results from many people making those forays into the adjacent possible, pursuing many ideas. As much as that might sound like a recipe for amplifying the randomness of the whole dynamic, it actually has a powerful ability to create a natural system of checks and balances -- not a system for eliminating uncertainty and chance, but one that does a mighty good job of honing both.
Bottom line, if you want that quantum leap, go small, go often, and go together.