The Pioneering Approach

Pioneers focus on something they feel passionately about where they have the ability to do great work. They may be following their vocation, doing a creative project or tackling a specific challenge.

Such people perceive things in a certain way, do pioneering work and aim to get positive results. They may aim to build successful prototypes, do pacesetting work or provide a new paradigm.

Pioneers take their work seriously but also have a sense of play. Some retain this quality throughout their lives. Play powers our imagination. As George Bernard Shaw wrote:

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Richard Feynman, the professor of physics, urged his students to focus on what they loved to do. This could take them into different dimensions. He kept returning to the following themes. 

Pioneers sometimes do pacesetting work. Such people keep developing – sometimes by surfing the sigmoid curve – and embark on the next piece of pioneering work. Let’s explore these themes.


Pioneers have a different kind of perception. They see patterns and extrapolate what may happen in the future. They visualise how things can be and they want to deliver this vision.

Such people are able to see the destination quickly. When entering the situation in which they excel, they quickly see the potential picture of success. They go A, B … and then leap to … Z.

The architect walks onto a site and visualises the finished house. The innovator sees how a piece of technology can transform the world. The mediator imagines a win-win solution for people who are stuck in conflict.

Some people go beyond the first Z. They go onto the second alphabet. Some people go even further. They go into another dimension and onto the third alphabet in their chosen field.

Such people can be inspiring to work with but also challenging. One Chief Operating Officer explained this in the following way.

“Our leader is a real visionary. He sees the future and is years ahead of everybody.  

“It is as if he is actually there. He can see, feel and experience what is happening. He can also describe the steps that have been taken to get to this place.

“Whilst a visionary, he can explain some aspects of the journey in great detail. He describes the steps to take and how to overcome challenges. On other occasions, however, he gets exasperated with people who throw in objections.  

“He simply says: ‘We can solve that,’ and goes on to explain the vision.  

“Many people find him inspiring, whilst other want more detail and get frustrated.

“My job is to act as a translator. It is to clarify how we can keep running the business whilst also working towards his long-term vision.”

Some pioneers seem to see things that others don’t. Such people often take the following approach.

Pioneers also often learn to channel their personalities rather than change their personalities. People who are labelled as different sometimes see things from a different angle.

They may be considered as introverted, highly sensitive, dyslexic, having synaesthesia or being slow learners at school. Such people develop strategies to survive.

These may be different from those needed to succeed by going a conventional route. On the other hand, developing such skills can enable them to thrive.

Creative people sometimes create their own field rather than try to succeed in an established field. They may invent a new sport, industry or activity. They then aim to perform at their best in this new field.

Pioneers do not subscribe to the cliché of thinking outside the box. They do not actually see a box. They improve things a transformational way and introduce a fresh paradigm. This can sometimes revolutionise whole industries or societies.

Thomas Kuhn popularised the term paradigm shift in his 1962 article on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He explained how breakthroughs in science sometimes come from seeing the world in a different way.

The example that is often quoted is the Earth once being considered the centre of the universe. Seeing that it actually revolves around the Sun enabled people to see reality in a different way.

People have different strengths. They also perceive the world in different ways. They may be systems thinkers, specialists or systems thinkers within their specialism.

Pioneers are often systems thinkers in their chosen field. They see: a) how things are connected; b) how things can be connected to achieve the potential picture of success.

Such people go beyond their own Eureka moment. They feel compelled to translate their perception into reality and show a better way. Buckminster Fuller expressed this view in the following way.

Arie de Geus, author of The Living Company, says that great workers look ahead to anticipate challenges and find potential solutions. They develop what he called a memory of the future.

Looking ahead, they explore scenarios in the activities they find fascinating. They use their imagination to take the following steps.

They explore both the positive and challenging scenarios;

They explore how to capitalise on the positive scenarios and how to prevent or, if necessary, manage the challenging scenarios;

They explore the best ways forwards for improving the chances of creating future success. 

Such workers find this homework helps them as events unfold. Even if the unexpected happens, they will have rehearsed strategies for dealing with many scenarios. This gives them an advantage over others who may not have rehearsed properly.

Pioneers enjoy being creative. Some people like to start with a blank piece of paper and lots of resources. This sounds alluring but can lead to paralysis. A person may take a long time to decide what they actually want to create on the blank piece of paper.

Some people prefer to start with the equivalent of borders around the piece of paper. They are then forced to use their imagination to achieve their goals. The borders they are given may include:

The results they aim to deliver … The resources available for delivering the results … The time limits within which they must deliver the results.

Karen Hough described this approach in an article she wrote called Creative Constraint: Why Tighter Boundaries Propel Greater Results. Below is an extract from the article. 

It sounds counter-intuitive, but boundaries can actually boost creativity. Think about procrastination — deadlines are often the single factor that ensures projects get done. As Dave Gray commented on his blog:  

“Creativity is driven by constraints. When we have limited resources — even when the limits are artificial — creative thinking is enhanced. That’s because the fewer resources you have, the more you are forced to rely on your ingenuity.”

When there are no boundaries, the possibilities may seem too large. That’s why some of the greatest art and innovation has come from a situation of constraint.


Pioneers See Possibilities

Pioneers often have a positive approach when faced by challenges. They ask some of the following questions.

What are the possibilities in the situation? What are the potential solutions? What are the opportunities rather than just the obstacles?

What are the principles I want to follow? What are the practical solutions? How can I do my best to get positive results?

Thorkil Sonne took the possibilities approach by founding the Specialist People Foundation. This aims to create one million jobs globally for people with autism.

Such people often have outstanding memories, a remarkable eye for detail and do repetitive tasks with enthusiasm. These skills can be valuable for companies that specialise in developing technology. Using a Dandelion as it symbol, here is an excerpt from the organisation’s website.

Different people choose to see possibilities in different ways. Let’s explore this approach in more depth.


Some people seem to immediately look for possibilities in a situation. They channel their energy in a positive way by asking some of the following questions.

“What are the possibilities? What are the options going forwards? What are the possible solutions? What are the possible goals we can achieve? How can we use this situation in a positive way?”

Such people are often lifelong learners. Everybody is different, but creative thinkers may demonstrate some of the following characteristics.

They developed self-learning skills early in life. They explored through reading, experiences or other methods. They were encouraged to follow their passions or were left alone to adventure.  

They explored many different philosophies and the many approaches to life. They may have met different kinds of people or lived in different cultures. 

They have learned to see things from different angles. They learned to explore different options without passing judgement. They pursued the things they found fascinating before settling on their chosen specialism.

There are many books on the topic of seeing possibilities. The following section describes some of the ideas outlined in Wired To Create by Carolyn Gregoire and Scott Barry Kaufman.

Here is an excerpt from the official description of the book. This is followed by some characteristics displayed by creative people. These are based on an article that Carolyn Gregoire wrote for the Huffington Post.

People who see possibilities aim see the big picture. They look for patterns and connections. They then do deep work on the way towards achieving a compelling goal.

Such people study success in many areas of life. They clarify what works and apply these ideas in their own way. They follow certain principles but are prepared to be pragmatic in how they apply these to achieve success.

Creative people are sometimes prepared to explore many options without rushing to judgement. They may consider what may seem contradictory ideas and love to keep adding colours to their paintbox. When hearing something, they may ask themselves:

“What if the opposite is true? What happens if I turn the idea upside down? What if I see this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle? What if we turn this so-called limitation into something that is liberating?”

Such continue to develop their strategic thinking. Some leaders, for example, often ask the following questions:

“What are the real results we want to achieve? What are the key strategies we can follow to give ourselves to the greatest chance of success? How can we translate these into action and achieve the picture of success?”

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of a situation where you may want to follow elements of the possibilities approach? This could be in your personal or professional life.

What could you do then to see opportunities? If appropriate, how could you do explore possible solutions? How could you then translate your ideas into working towards possible goals?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to complete the following sentences.

Pioneering Work

Pioneers often translate their passion into pursuing a clear purpose and doing pioneering work. They believe in following their principles and delivering high professional standards on the way towards getting positive results.

They show people can be creative with limited resources. Forced to operate within certain parameters, they make full use of their imagination to do remarkable work.

Maria Montessori qualified as a doctor but then wanted to work as a teacher. Finding it difficult to get a role in the educational system, she was offered the opportunity to educate children in a mental hospital.

Able to work as she wished, Maria created what became known as the Montessori Method. This produced remarkable results and inspired many other educators to help children to develop. Here are some of the themes she followed in her approach to education.

Different pioneers choose different ways to pursue their chosen route. Some prefer to work alone or run their own businesses. One person expressed this in the following way.

“I spent years working inside organisations trying to persuade people to change. But I was battling against the nature of systems theory.  

“Systems move towards homeostasis – the drive to return to their present state. Sometimes this can be good, because it creates stability. But sometimes it can be dangerous, because it can be a question of develop or die.

“Systems sometimes drive out the creativity they need to survive. So I found other ways to develop new ideas.” 

Gordon Mackenzie was somebody who did creative work within an organisation. He described how to do this in his book Orbiting The Giant Hairball: A corporate fool’s guide to surviving with grace.

He spent 30 years working for the Hallmark Card Company and managed to orbit around what he called the hairball of organisational bureaucracy.

Gordon encouraged people to continue to dare, explore and be pioneers. One chapter in his book consists of just one sentence:

“Orville Wright did not have a pilot’s licence.”

Gordon believed that every person is an artist but the process of suppressing this spirit starts early. During his working career he often spent whole days in elementary schools and asked each group of children the same question.

Starting the day in the kindergarten class, he asked:

“Who here is an artist?”

Everybody in the room put their hands up. Many wanted to show their paintings or other creative work they had done. The first grade class responded in a similar way, though with a little more caution.

Gordon continued to ask the question as he worked through the grades. By the end of the day few young people raised their hands. Something had happened to the spark within.

How can a person continue to be an artist? Some people choose to express their talents by being freelancers. Others go into organisations and try to change them from the centre.

Both routes are options, said Gordon, but there is another route. This is to contribute by orbiting around the centre rather than let it cramp your creativity. He explained this in the following way.

“Orbiting is vibrancy. Orbiting is manifesting your originality. It’s pushing the boundaries of ingrained corporate patterns.  

“It’s striking a relationship with the corporation so that you can benefit from what it offers – its physical, intellectual, and philosophical resources – without being sucked in by its gravitational pull.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship: without the hairball, the orbiter would spiral into space; without the orbiter’s creativity and originality, the hairball would be a mass of nothing.” 

Certainly it is vital to fulfil your obligations to the organisation that pays your wages. At the same time, however, it is important to express your creativity. Here are some quotes from Gordon.

“Everyone has a masterpiece within them from birth. When we are young, society draws pale blue lines, as if your life were a paint-by-numbers kit.

“The message is: If you stay in the lines your life will be a masterpiece. That’s a lie. You have to constantly battle to be nobody but yourself.” 

“What is the biggest obstacle to creativity? Attachment to outcome.

As soon as you become attached to a specific outcome, you feel compelled to control and manipulate what you’re doing and in the process you shut yourself off to other possibilities.”

“Creativity is not just about succeeding. It’s about experimenting and discovering. If you go to your grave without painting your masterpiece, it will not get painted. No one else can paint it. Only you.”

The Innovation Often Takes Place
Away From The Institution Approach

Sometimes it is possible to encourage people to use their imagination within an institution. Many innovators, however, choose to spend time away from institutions.

The institution may be a building, organisation or other body that has an ambivalent attitude towards creative thinking. It can therefore be useful to go beyond such a situation and find other stimulation.

Some innovators may still belong to an organisation but they create some kind of distance. This may be a physical distance – such as working at home or in their own laboratory. Sometimes they aim to create be a psychological distance – such as doing things differently.

Let’s look at one example. Tom was a broadcaster who made compelling films that highlighted problems but also presented positive solutions. His work gained national prominence through regular appearance on television.

Two years after his breakthrough Tom was approached by a national organisation. They gave him the following message.

“We like your innovative ideas and want to hire you to head our organisation. The challenge we face is that we need to revitalise our approach. Unless we do that, we may not be around in five years.”

He admired the institution and chose to take the role. Full of energy at the outset, Tom then ran up against barriers. At this point he and I explored how he could thrive and do good work.

Tom’s strengths lay in certain areas. He believed passionately in improving activities that overlapped with the organisation’s aims. A superb communicator, he also had a track record of making powerful films that brought about change.

The organisation did not seem to understand his strengths. Arriving for the first day at the office, he was given the following message.

“We have mapped out your diary for the first two months. This includes running the Monday morning meetings and taking charge of operations.  

“We also want you to dine with our traditional backers in the Shires. They are sceptical of change, but you can win them round.”

Tom launched into fulfilling the schedule but soon because disillusioned, which is when he contacted me. During our first meeting we focused on how to do good work. He soon realised that it was important:

To focus on one area of the organisation’s charter that he believed in and translate this into doing a specific project;

To use his strengths as a broadcaster and communicator to mobilise national attention around this topic; 

To show practical ways forward in this area and do his best to deliver positive results.

Tom took this route. He made regular appearances on national television, mobilised public opinion and the project was successful.

His employers were uneasy, however, and issued an ultimatum. They wanted him: a) to energise the organisation; b) to do this in a way that left many of the same things in place.

Tom decided to return to his first love – making compelling films and communicating with the public. He continues to do this and recognised as a respected figure in his field.

The organisation he left remains in a difficult place. Many of its traditional backers are no longer around, so funding is a challenge. It says it wants to follow its principles – which are sound – but has difficulty in applying these successfully in the modern world.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of a situation where you may be more innovative away from an institution?

The institution may be a work place or a set way of doing things. Both of these can be useful at times, because they can provide a framework for doing fine work. It may be that on some occasions, however, you may want to get away from such a familiar setting.

You may want to get stimulation by going for a walk, listening to music, appreciating beauty, being in a different place or having other experiences. There may also be other ways to spark your imagination.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to complete the following sentences.

The Misfits Who
Make Magic Approach

Many people feel like misfits. They may experience this feeling in their daily life, school, work or community. Different people manage this feeling in different ways.

Some individuals aim to fit in. Some try to find a group where they gain a sense of identity. Some go their own way. They may do this in ways that help or hurt themselves or other people

Some misfits feel okay and find ways to express themselves. Some individuals do this in the following way.

They Develop A Sense Of Mission

Some individuals focus on doing the things they believe in. They pursue their passion for writing, playing music, helping people or doing other things that give them positive energy. They find an activity where they feel they belong.

They may then develop a sense of mission. Becoming obsessed by their chosen activity, they aim to become the best they can be. They may also want to pass on the fruits of labour to other people.

They Maintain High Standards

Such individuals feel alive, alert and swept away when pursuing their chosen activity. They feel a sense of duty to serve their craft. They aim to do fine work, keep developing and maintain high standards.

They may also take this approach when working with other people. Whilst they may prefer to pursue their craft by themselves, they recognise it can be helpful to behave in a professional way. They therefore aim to maintain high standards in the way they work with colleagues and customers.

They Make Magic

Such individuals feel a strong fit with their chosen mission but not necessarily with elements of the wider society. This means that they sometimes see things with an artist’s eye. Such an approach has both strengths and weaknesses.

The pluses may include their strength of character, the ability to see possibilities and, on some occasions, being able to produce magical work. The minuses may include emotional ups-and-downs and the need to continually find people who may hire them for what they offer.

Some former misfits continue to thrive. This is because they have found an activity where they fit. They then develop a sense of mission, maintain high standards and sometimes make magic.

Positive Results

Different pioneers choose different ways to deliver positive results. They may aim to build a successful prototype, pass on their knowledge or offer people a different paradigm.

Anita Roddick was somebody who acted as a role model for people who wanted to build ethical and successful businesses. Whilst it was important that The Body Shop was profitable, she also talked about different definitions of success.

She may have come across as an idealist, but Anita was remarkably savvy. She learned the ‘can do’ attitude from her Italian parents. They ran an American-style Diner café in Littlehampton, Sussex, during the 1950s.

Opening the café at 5.00 am to cater for the fishermen’s breakfast, they kept serving throughout the day until the last customer was satisfied. Anita served in the café from an early age and felt what it was like to handle money.

Gilly Mckay and Alison Cork take up the story in their book The Body Shop. They say that Anita’s apprenticeship proved invaluable when starting her first shop in Brighton in 1976. Here are some quotes from Anita that are in their book.

“When I opened the doors, I was not thinking about changing the world. I simply had to take £1000 in the first week to feed the baby and pay the bills.”

Anita had learned, however, to provide good service that attracted and retained customers. Believing that retail is theatre, she tried to create a good atmosphere in the shop.

“With £4000 borrowed from the bank I could only afford to spend £700 on products. But the 20 products we formulated looked pretty pathetic all standing on one shelf. So to make the shop look busy and full I produced them in five sizes of bottles.

“I couldn’t afford fancy packaging so I bought the cheapest bottles available and the labels were handwritten. We painted the ceiling of our tiny shop green to cover the damp patches and put garden fencing on the walls to stop rain splashing the products.  

“The first day we opened was a Saturday and we took £100. The other retailers in the street were laying odds of 10-1 against our surviving six months, but we were on our way.”

Pioneers Aim
To Keep Developing

Pioneers keep developing. Some choose to pass on their knowledge to other people and this can lead to a sense of satisfaction.

Many pioneers begin to feel restless, however, and want to pursue the next stimulating adventure. Pacesetters, for example, have a different kind of psychology.

Pacesetters aim to take the lead, maintain the lead and extend the lead. They often act as pioneers by making the new rules for the game.

The Chasing Approach

Great workers sometimes borrow an idea from sports psychology. Some frontrunners still see themselves as chasers even though they may be leading the field.

They keep looking ahead, setting stimulating goals and working towards their picture of success. They use their energy to look forward rather than look over their shoulder.

A golfer may take this approach when leading the Masters on the final day. They focus on posting their best score rather than anticipating putting on the famous green jacket.

A slalom skier who is leading after the first run in the Winter Olympic Final will stay in the moment. They will aim to flow rather than worry about failing. They will aim to do their personal best rather be concerned about where they finish.

Pioneers are often addicted to learning, developing and creating new things. Some keep developing by surfing the sigmoid curve.

Charles Handy popularised this his book The Age of Paradox. Originally a mathematical term, it can also be used to track the development of a product, a person’s career, an organisation or even a civilisation.

As one curve reaches its peak, some pioneers aim to create or surf onto the next sigmoid curve. They take this approach rather than lapse into what they see as decline.

Imagine you are climbing the curve in a specific aspect of your professional life. Where are you now?

Perhaps you are halfway up the curve. Feeling hungry, you may believe there is lots of scope for development. On the other hand, you may have hit a ceiling or believe that your own growth – or the product or service you offer – is deteriorating.

The sigmoid curve approach has implications for businesses. Many companies invest heavily in research. But they make money from the products that have already reached their peak or are in decline.

Sometimes this also calls for employing different kinds of people in different parts of the business. Companies recognise that this can be a challenge. It is vital:

To continue developing new products;

To continue capitalising on the older products that are providing the money for the new developments.

Many people are attracted to creating the new products but the research and development stages seldom brings early returns. It is therefore important to provide encouragement for those who are making money from the older products.

Imagine you are still climbing the curve. How can you keep developing? How can you keep building on your strengths? How can you stay close to your customers and help them succeed? 

Surfing onto the next sigmoid curve

Imagine that you want to surf onto the next curve. Here are some questions that it may be useful to explore to make this happen.

What are the things that give me positive energy? What are the things that I find fascinating? How can I continue to build on my strengths? How can I do projects that are stimulating?

Looking at my professional life, what will be happening in my field in the next three years? How can I spend time with pacesetting customers and explore the challenges they will face?

How can I stay ahead of the game? How can I create products or services that will help my pacesetting customers and others to succeed? How can I create or surf onto the next sigmoid curve?

There are many adaptations of the sigmoid curve. One approach encourages a person to explore where they are on the satisfying work curve.

Seed Corn 

A person explores many possibilities. They follow their interests and plants lots of seeds. Some of these turn into activities that they can develop. They then pursue a specific activity they find stimulating. 

Satisfying Work 

The person translates the activity into doing a specific piece of satisfying work. This may be a task, project or other activity. They continue to pursue this venture and, if appropriate, aim to find some funding.

Salary Earner

The person translates doing the satisfying work into earning a salary. This produces both upsides and downsides. Sometimes they have spurts of growth; sometimes they feel they have plateaued. Sometimes they continue doing good work, but sometimes they experience the next stage.

Spent Force

The person finds their energy begins to deteriorate. The cash is still coming in but doing the activity is no longer stimulating. They feel like a spent force. This does not matter if they have spent time nurturing their next crop of seed corn. They will then be ready to begin the next development cycle.

Pioneers Do Their Personal Best

Pioneers love to finish properly. They love to see a recovered patient leave hospital, publish an account of their adventure, sell their start-up business or finish another activity.

Some move on to tackling other fascinating challenges. Some pass on their knowledge to other people. They may do this through coaching, mentoring, teaching, making films, writing or using another media.

Many pioneers want to feel at peace, but this can be difficult. Why? Such people often want to achieve perfection, but sometimes other forces mean this may not be achievable.

Some people take another approach and aim to do their personal best. Olivia Hurley, an assistant professor and sports psychologist, underlined why this is important in her article What We Can Learn About Resilience From Elite Athletes. Here is an excerpt from the article.

Have the courage to be imperfect 

Too often in life, we aim for ‘perfection’. As sport psychologists we should not recommend athletes use this term. 

Instead we should work together to help them to produce Personal Bests (PBs), helping them to aim for performance excellence, but not expecting perfection.  

Such PB targets should not stop anyone from giving one hundred per cent effort to their performances. But, by not feeling the need to be perfect, they are more likely to ‘have a go’, which often leads to the most effective performances.

Pioneers who feel they have done their best may enjoy a sense of peace. Sometimes this feeling lasts for a long time; sometimes for only ten seconds. However long the feeling lasts, however, it can give them a positive memory for life.

Pioneers rest for a while and reflect on what they have learned. Some experience post-purpose syndrome. They felt so alive when pursuing a goal but now feel empty.

They then turn their attention to doing the next stimulating project. Different people manage this challenge in different ways. Some take the following steps.

They give themselves permission to rest, reflect and then begin looking ahead;

They follow a structure each day and do things that give them positive energy; 

They explore things they find stimulating and sometimes translate these into doing a satisfying project that provides a sense of purpose.

Can you think of a piece of pioneering work that you would like to do in the future?

You may simply want to do a piece of creative work, find solutions to a challenge or build something new. You may wish to do so as a parent, educator, sports coach, mentor, leader or in another role.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to complete the following sentences.

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