It’s not often that a scientific breakthrough rocks our world, but recently a new subatomic particle, the muon, did just that.
Heavier than electrons and an integral component of the cosmos, physicist Chris Polly and his team at the Department of Energy’s Fermilab discovered that muons don’t behave as predicted when fired through a potent magnetic field.
Dr. Polly called the discovery “our Mars rover landing moment,” and you don’t have to be a physicist to see why. It’s a brand new frontier beyond what we think we know (the laws of physics) and what is (currently unknown but essential natural energy forms).
Beyond that, Dr. Polly has dedicated his career to this breakthrough finding, focusing on muon research for the last 25 years. His willingness to challenge the status quo has led his team and him to change the course of physics and influence generations of physicists to come.
Now, this is as far as the physics instruction goes. But the lessons of the muon?
This tiny particle can inspire big perspective shifts for business leaders who dream of launching the next Apple, Tesla, Netflix, Amazon, Uber, or Patagonia.
All you have to do is put how you work under a microscope and look for patterns you can break, along with opportunities you never knew existed.
Step One: Forget what you know
Rules, much like muons, can be heavy.
And not just written laws, but even those that are unspoken or implied. For example, organizations tend to have long lists of standards designed to accelerate growth and efficiency.
But the very things that helped build success initially often end up creating barriers and becoming innovation blockers. That’s because thinking becomes too linear and rigid, limiting openings for possibility and potential to emerge.
Going back to Dr. Polly: imagine if he and his team believed the laws of physics were airtight and not worth challenging. They might suspect there’s more beyond the Standard Model, but limiting beliefs would poke a pin in exploring that potential.
Likewise, companies are always looking to define “best practices.” But that idea is in itself a paradox. Like the laws of physics, best practices are based on information that already exists.
This is where unlearning comes in. According to Psychology Today:
“Unlearning is the process through which we break down the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases.”
That includes first asking yourself where your beliefs come from. Then, you have to question if they align with the world you want to live in. And, perhaps most importantly, you’ll have to consider whether your beliefs are authentic to who you are — and what you want to become.
This is, of course, a personal quest. But professionally, this process of unlearning can be done with your team and creative co-conspirators.
It’s as simple as adopting a Beginner’s Mindset or Shoshin. It is what it sounds like: ditching preconceived notions and viewing everything through fresh eyes. As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki reminds us, a clean slate is the perfect (re)starting point.
“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.”
Dr. Polly and his team are certainly experts, but they didn’t let that stop them. Their curiosity and passion prevented them from having a fixed mindset and allowed them to embrace a growth mode to unlock new ideas and foster incredible innovation.
Step Two: Shift your energy
A clean slate is only half the battle in making way for new possibilities. Once again, the muon can serve as inspiration. Because after all, what is a muon?
Very simply, that’s “the ability to do work.”
And this can go either way. It’s been my experience that people often aren’t comfortable with change (even though it’s literally the only constant 🤔) and will even actively oppose it.
Consciously or unconsciously.
I see it all the time. People complain bitterly about a process rather than putting their time and focus into shifting it to something that flows and works better.
Now, throw into the mix shaking up the status quo, and things can get ugly.
Take, for example, remote work. It’s been a thing for nearly 25 years, but until the pandemic, the vast majority of companies would have never allowed or trusted their employees to work remotely. Grand experiments in distance work (like Yahoo’s, which was dumped in 2013) seemed to indicate telecommuting was a bust.
Cut to today, when the Great Pause became the next great workforce experiment. Unsurprisingly, a Gartner survey shows 80% of companies plan to let employees work from home at least part of the time post-pandemic.
I believe this is a great example of “where the attention goes, the energy flows.”
Without choices, we were forced to innovate, adjust, and become resilient. WFH was no longer a WTF — it was an excellent answer that opened doors to all sorts of benefits, including higher productivity, lower attrition, greater inclusivity, and more collaboration.
So, an open mind plus positive energy to embrace change, not resist it, put you well on the way to vast opportunities.
Step Three: Learn what you don’t know
The effort to create a tabula rasa (clean slate) now needs to be equally balanced with the willingness to learn, experiment, tweak, and repeat.
I’ll give you an example. We’re working with an innovative, tech-driven home furnishings company. My team and I started by doing our marketing due diligence by first looking at their UX tools, like personas and customer journey maps. Then we checked out their current advertising assets. Finally, we asked the most critical question:
How can we go deeper?
In today’s fickle instant economy, things are constantly in flux. Today’s customers don’t play by rules — they make the rules. And then immediately change them.
The same is true in the world of quantum mechanics. “Rules” are nonintuitive, so it’s on you to observe them in action and learn from what you see.
This can be a tough job. In physics, it’s about trying to keep a handle on “virtual particles,” which pop in and out of existence.
In the business world, it’s all about digital customer behavior, which is more and more individual and personalized as technology advances. Client attention is earned when you focus on what they actually care about.
Back to the home furnishings example. Thanks to real-time analytics, we were able to figure out what aspects of the experience people were most interested in and what the path to purchase really entailed. We then took the existing promotional assets and started chunking them out into individual components.
Finally, we took an even deeper dive into the audience to determine how they were interested in learning about the product. We found that the highest lifetime value customers were twice as likely to be casual or addictive gamers, so we gamified the content in a way that puts the prospective customer in the driver’s seat.
Ultimately, the final home furnishings campaign broke a ton of web design best practices. Conventional, antiquated thinking says it’s a straight line to purchase. Today, it’s all about understanding the customer, noticing the choices they make, and following their lead (not the other way around).
That said, no solution is ever final. How people search for and buy goods today can (and will) change tomorrow.
So, it’s our job to keep learning. Where is the audience leading us? What do they want to know more about? And what could they care less about?
Habits, preferences, and actions are not static. It’s all energy, continually in motion.
Likewise, your commitment to always be open to new information must be a beacon in product development.
In the end, there are no hard and fast rules. Only observations, learning, and how we respond. The emergence of the muon reminds us that there are no best practices, only better directions.
When you lead with curiosity, you naturally activate energy and ignite opportunities. And in the end, that’s what creates new paradigms, products, and revenue streams — expanding your business and opening up a whole universe of potential.