When I see or hear this word, I have almost a physical reaction. A good one. It automatically relaxes me.
By definition, a breakthrough is preceded by feeling stuck, so it represents tremendous relief. Whether that’s finally writing something amazing on a blank sheet of paper, finally figuring out what to do for your nine-year-old’s birthday party, realizing what it was about your diet that was making you feel like complete crap every so often, or whatever.
But what happens when you have that breakthrough, and then someone stomps on it?
Several years ago, I was working on a packaged goods brand at an agency, and business wasn’t good. Month after month, sales were tanking. We all knew why: there was a new competitor in town that was taking the world by storm, and all of our customers were being swept up in its wake. What was scary is that we’d been number one for so long just doing the same old same old, no one knew how the hell to do anything differently. We made the recommendation to put everything we knew to the side, and approach the challenge as we would a new business pitch, despite having been partners on the brand for decades. The result was what we’d hoped: a huge breakthrough in insight, which led to completely different work. The client ate it up. And then got cold feet, because it was so completely different. And then killed it because.. it was so completely different. We ended up developing more work that was certainly better than where we’d been prior to the exercise, but it was a watered down version of the original. And though it did help stabilize the business, it didn’t have the effect I’m certain it could have, had we only let that breakthrough truly run its course.
Breakthroughs don’t happen all the time, but when they do, their purity is powerful. Whether it’s our own breakthrough or someone else’s, trusting the result of it, and resisting the temptation to question it and then noodle it to death, has the potential to create something beautiful.
Here’s a little something I do every so often: go back and look at the work (be it creative or strategy or just a POV) that I felt in my gut was really good – especially the work that never ended up seeing the light of day. (If you’re in advertising, there’s no shortage of this stuff.) A lot of it will have been the result of a big breakthrough. While it’s dead in its own right, and that’s kind of depressing, you can still squeeze some good out of it. Let it provide the reminder that there is so much more yet to be created. Then be ready for that next breakthrough, and stick to your guns.