How Small Changes Can Produce Big Breakthroughs

We've seen it a thousand times throughout history. Somebody comes up with a novel idea and, for whatever reason, it flops. Then, somebody else takes essentially the same concept, turns it on its side or repackages it, and boom, a huge breakthrough that achieves notoriety and success.

Most of us go through life thinking of success as a sort of supernatural event, a preordained occurance that only happens to certain people. We look at the careers of Albert Einstein, Warren Buffet, or Steve Jobs as if that sort of thing can never happen to us.

Okay, maybe those are tough acts to follow, but that's sort of my point. Even legends are human beings who, to the best of my knowledge, put their pants on one leg at a time. The truth is that the vast majority of successful ideas, people, and companies don't occur as magically or spontaneously as you might imagine. I can think of five common ways in which relatively small changes can produce major breakthroughs:

  1. Timing. Reintroducing an idea when conditions are more favorable.
  2. Opportunity. Capitalizing on another's idea because they couldn't, for whatever reason.
  3. Perspective. Looking at the same thing differently, i.e. turning an idea on its side.
  4. Standing on the shoulders of giants. Adding a relatively small component to the great works of others.
  5. Luck. Just plain luck.
Let's look at Einstein for example. Now, don't get me wrong, the man was indeed a genius. I mean, he didn't just bang out a few equations to come up with E=MC2. But the notion of matter and energy being related in some way had been around for some time. The difference, was that Einstein had a passion for light. It was actually his notion of the invariance of the speed of light that led to the special theory of relativity and then to E=MC2. More than anything, Einstein had a unique perspective. He saw the same things others saw, but he saw them differently.

Johannes Kepler, whose laws of planetary motion are famous, actually came very close to deriving the theory of gravity more than 50 years before Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. Unfortunately, Kepler was a bit nuts, a religious zealot, often ill, and lived in a politically and religiously charged era. He had a lot working against him. Not to diminish Newton's role in discovering universal gravity, but he definitely stood on the shoulders of giants, as others later stood on his.

Moving on to the business world, if you explore the origins of famous companies, you'll find that most of them had anything but grandiose beginnings, and they often began as one thing and ended up as another:

  • The first McDonald's was a hot dog stand
  • Nokia was initially a paper mill
  • Sony began as a radio repair shop
  • James L. Kraft, founder of Kraft Foods, sold cheese door-to-door
  • Toyota originally made looms
The point is that great inventors, leaders, and companies aren't like step functions in real life. They don't go from zero-to-great in a heartbeat. More often than not, they stand on the shoulders of giants, see things a little bit differently, or benefit from timing, opportunity, or luck. If they have anything at all in common, I'd say they're able to find something unique inside themselves. And therein lies the rub. You can do great things, but first, you have to find the genuine you. That, I think, is the hard part.