Innovating? Know the Boundaries

“I’m not ignoring you, I’m just not listening to what you are saying.” I didn’t really understand this when I first heard until I found myself yelling it during a photo session for this blog. My creative director and photographer started shouting out instructions: “Jump up in the air and do a split!” and “Can you skip along the ledge?”

They got nothing. I heard one of them say, “She is ignoring us.” I wasn’t ignoring anyone. If you are look at the photo, you can see I am on an elevated narrow wall, attired in a dress that tapers in at the knees, and at the time, I was wearing 3 inch heels. Doing splits in my dress means the dress would literally split. The wall was too narrow and it curved. I was in a public San Francisco tourist destination where everything is recorded on smart phones. I was not ready to go viral on You Tube as the woman who literally, went over the edge. I channeled my best NBA dunk and took to the air…only after putting on my motorcycle boots.

I appreciate the team and spontaneous creativity. This was an amazing collaboration with a photographer committed to the vision of the project and a stylist who assured my butt would not look big and my hair did not resemble buckwheat. This worked well because there was a vision and boundaries. I thought about how it is similar with requirements gathering and the infamous brainstorming sessions.

Brainstorming sessions commonly open with the phrase, “Let’s start with a blank sheet of paper.” My personal reaction, “Noooooooooooooooooooo!” I am sure that I am not alone for any number of reasons. However, my reasoning is that you will not be focused and will end up with little that can be a viable solution. Or worse, you develop an elegant solution to a non-existent problem.

Wait, before you become righteously indignant, let me explain. You have to start with the business problem you are trying to solve. What is your goal? You have something and it’s not a blank sheet of paper. That’s not to say you limit the ideas and possibilities. All thoughts are welcomed because that’s where the magic happens. But there is also the reality of what can be and what should not be. This happens more than you may think in business. Often these products do not get released – so you don’t know about it. However, some do.

Let’s take a look at a few business cases:

Pepsi Edge and Coke C2 were mid-calorie beverages developed by the major cola companies. They were not a full calorie and not a diet beverage. ( It was a solution without a problem. Sure, people were trying to cut carbohydrates at the time, but how often did someone really say “gee, I wish there was a mid calorie beverage – something between a diet and regular.” Based on the environment at time, this was not a bad idea, but, maybe the “true” market for the product was a missing data point in the business case.

How to start requirements gathering or even search for a new solution? Identify the business problem you are trying to solve and the market you are trying to reach. Are you trying to solve for a need that people didn’t even know existed? What is the compelling driver? What is the vision?

I run what are called project definition sessions. We use these sessions to develop the vision and goals, set up objectives and scope. The funny part is this is the step people want to skip. They say, “Well, we know what we are trying to do.” My response is always, “Great, than this will only take a short time to document and validate. However, if there is any confusion, we will know this too.”

What are you going to do and why? For example, with one client, everyone agreed on the what. Technicians were to go out to customer homes and record the box numbers, in order to know the addresses of which boxes indicated trouble. But the team widely differed on the expected benefits. One group thought the goal was to save money. However, there were rarely failures and when problems arose with these boxes, customer would call regarding these issues. The cost of recording the numbers far exceeded any possible benefit. When there is an issue, someone would need to go out to the customer home anyway. The project was cancelled 15 minutes into the meeting.

A couple of years out of university and I was an engineer on a new ATM. We were developing an ATM that would cash a check and therefore would need the ability to give change. I was part of a late night design discussion on where to put the change cup for the ATM. Now I was young, and relatively new to the “business environment.” I had doubts about the practically of this solution, but thought, “OK. What do I know? In my head, I didn’t see a benefit, but I was sure, someone had done the research. Well, the client laughed at us. The requirement was to deposit a check, not cash a check. Somewhere along the line, someone got creative with the interpretation or thought cashing a check would be cool. I don’t know. What I do know is we ended up with prototypes that never made it. The prototypes ended up at the company credit union. It was a solution without a problem.

The goal for this photo session was to capture random acts of fitness in an urban settings and in street clothes. So while, there were no splits or skipping, the results still captured the vision for the project – without injury to photographer or me.

Trying to be creative? Let the business problem define your boundaries. I know there are some philosophies that believe everything counts and having no boundaries will yield you an amazing solution. Really? Let’s just reserve that approach for the genius realm. I’m a realist and work in the everyday business solutions. Define the business problem and then get creative within the boundaries. Just like me on the narrow ledge. Restrictions don’t stop the ability to soar; they just ensure a safe landing.


  1. How companies can nurture innovation and motivate their talents to bring innovations forward?

    Each company is destined to get the results it gets. What I mean by this is that poor organization, lack of solid and sustainable innovation culture lead to poor results, and more than before, to a company’s trouble or death.
    Smart business leaders shape the culture of their company to drive innovation. Success and constant positive results come from the implementation and execution of strategies, business models, structure, processes, technologies and incentive systems that encourage innovation.
    If you would like to read more about learning innovation, you can access to my blog on:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great advice to refocus the vision and goals. While I often think I know what I am striving for, I have often not clearly defined steps to achieve them as I tend to look at the “big picture”. Time for my own project definition session.

    Liked by 1 person

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