Breakthrough Thinking

At the limits of performance, the difference between winning and loosing is not just about physical and mental strength, but about changing the rules and adopting a different strategy.  Alistair Schofield considers the challenge of breakthrough thinking.

I recently attended the final day of The Open golf tournament at the beautiful Royal Liverpool course at Hoylake.  What a privilege it was to see players such as Tiger Woods, Ernie Ells and Chris DiMarco playing so brilliantly.  Although all of these people are brilliant golfers, what intrigued me was that Tiger Woods won through adopting a radically different strategy to everyone else by not using a driver to tee off with on the longer holes.

Although this strategy caused consternation amongst many golf commentators on the first day of the competition, the result was that he not only won by two strokes, he also set a course record for the lowest total score during an Open championship, beating the previous record by eight strokes.

While most players are busy building on conventional wisdom to try to perfect their game, it takes real bravery to challenge the process and adopt a different strategy.  But breakthrough results are generally only as a result of breakthrough thinking.

My favorite example of breakthrough thinking is the story of Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile.


For many years it was widely believed that it was physically impossible for a human to run a mile (1609 meters) in under four minutes. In fact, until Bannister achieved it in 1954, many believed that that the four minute mile was a physical barrier that no man could break, in much the same way as pilots had once regarded the sound barrier.

Bannister, a medical student, could not see any particular reason why such a barrier should exist.  After all, a mile is simply an arbitrary measure that became a standard during the reign of Elizabeth I and a minute is a sixtieth of an hour because the Babylonians, who originated the measurement, used a base-60 counting system.

Having convinced himself that a physical barrier did not exist, Bannister ran a mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds on the 6th of May 1954, beating a record that had stood for the previous 9 years.

Interestingly, John Lander, another runner from that era, also ran a mile in under 4 minutes just 56 days later and, by the end of 1957, no less than 16 other athletes had achieved the same feat, proving that a physiological barrier had not existed, but a psychological barrier had!

The same is true in business where we all too frequently limit our thinking to what is probable, rather than what is possible.

Take the annual plan as a prime example.

In most companies I have worked for the starting point for the next years plan was the existing plan.  It is therefore no surprise that the new plan invariably ends up looking like the previous plan plus a bit.

But it was not this sort of incrementalist thinking that led Nokia to abandon its roots as a lumbering and tire manufacturing company to become the world leaders in mobile phones, or that persuaded Apple to break into the music entertainment industry with the launch of the iPod and iTunes.

There are numerous examples of where breakthrough thinking has led to step changes in the structure of an industry and made enormous profits for the originators of the new idea.  So why is it that the response to new ideas and new thinking is so often negative: ‘That sounds a bit risky’, ‘Haven’t we tried that already’, ‘Show me the figures’ etc.

The problem is that most of us have spent our careers being indoctrinated in the philosophy of management, where the approach assumes that there is a ‘best way’ and your job as a manager is to know the best way, to tell others and to supervise them to ensure that they do it the ‘best way’.

The philosophy of leadership is different in that it is concerned with what we achieve, but not with how we achieve it.  This therefore allows individuals to experiment and to find new and better ways of achieving the organisation’s goals.  

Leadership and management are complementary skills that need to be applied appropriately, but if John Kotter of the Harvard Business school is correct in stating that most of our organisations are over-managed and under-led, then breakthrough results will only occur if we invest in developing our leadership skills.