Breakthrough and Transformation are buzzwords that we hear all the time in corporate life. Yet what do they really mean? And how are they related? At one level, it seems obvious - a breakthrough is a sudden and dramatic realisation or discovery. A transformation is a profound shift of state - a change of form, such as when a caterpillar metamorphoses in to a butterfly. Breakthrough is often the catalysing moment of transformation. Yet in my experience of working with organisational leaders and teams, it is not so much the meaning of these terms per se that helps or hinders work towards breakthrough and transformation; it is the unexamined assumptions inherent in the metaphors we hold about these processes.
For example, it is easy to imagine breakthrough as a dynamic and explosive force, as in the image above. From this set of assumptions, breakthrough requires tremendous energy, focused will, drive and unyielding determination - literally 'breaking through' a barrier or obstacle that stands between us and that which we seek. There is something inherently risky, even dangerous in striving for this kind of breakthrough. As one client said to me many years ago, describing his attempts at breaking through some personal sales targets and the cost to his own physical and mental health, "There is a thin line between breakthrough and breakdown."
There is a thin line between breakthrough and breakdown
Yet what if breakthrough is not like this at all? What if it is something much more organic, emergent and natural? Are there alternative images of breakthrough that carry different connotations and that might direct our efforts at corporate transformation differently? I would like to offer three alternative images of breakthrough and be playful in suggesting how they might help us rethink how we go about breakthrough and transformation in organisational life.