The Art of Breakthrough (2-Part Series)

There are two kinds of break: those you make, and those you take. Part One of this two-part series covers the former, and Part Two covers the latter.

Part One: Break is the Important Part of Breakthrough

The Art of Breakthrough Part 1When a well-worn pattern is broken, creativity emerges. It is the broken pattern that makes us sit up, take notice, and pay attention. We think differently when a break occurs, more resourcefully. 

Let’s say, for example, that you get a flat tire while you’re driving. If you’re normal, you curse out loud. That curse signals a break from the ordinary, which, being creatures of habit, we don’t much care for. But now suddenly you’re wide-awake, with senses on high alert, and you’re aware of a problem requiring your full attention to solve it. Suddenly everything you normally take for granted becomes vitally important: how the car handles, the shoulder of the road, safe spots to pull over, traffic around you, tire-changing tools in your trunk, immediate avenues for help. 

These are all the resources you need for a creative solution. They were there all along, but it was the break that brought them to your attention.  

This in fact is the very magic behind “skunk works” projects. Most people have heard the term, but not everyone knows its genesis. 

In 1943, the U.S. War Department hired Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to build a working jet fighter prototype, giving them just 180 days to do so. There was just one man for the job: 33-year old Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, Lockheed’s talented but eccentric Chief Engineer. 

But Lockheed was out of floorspace, and the jet fighter project was to be conducted with top secrecy, so Johnson broke away from the main operation. He took the best engineers and mechanics with him, and set up camp in a rented circus tent next to a foul-smelling factory. 

The odor reminded people of the “Skonk Works” factory in Al Capp’s “L’il Abner” comic strip, and the Lockheed offshoot took on the nickname. For legal reasons, Lockheed eventually changed the name and trademarked “Skunk Works” for their secret innovation projects. 

Today “skunk works” refers to any effort involving an elite special team that breaks away from the larger organization to work autonomously on an advanced or secret project, usually tasked with breakthrough innovation on limited budgets and under aggressive timelines. 

“Break,” it seems, it the important part of breakthrough.

This content was adapted from Matt May’s book, The Laws Of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything (McGraw-Hill). To learn more about Matt May, visit


About Matt May

EDIT founder Matthew E. May has the best job in the world: part creativity coach, part innovation catalyst. Matt works with creative teams all over the world, helping them track down elegant solutions to complex problems. Matthew E. May is the author of the new book, The Laws Of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything (McGraw-Hill). Twitter: @MatthewEMay
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One Response to The Art of Breakthrough (2-Part Series)

  1. Pingback: The Art of Breakthrough Part 2: Doing Something Isn’t Always Better Than Doing Nothing | Leading Effectively: Official Blog of the Center for Creative Leadership

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