Finding freedom in a cage

Hotspex's Fiona Stevenson and Shelli Baltman look at the dangers of blue-sky thinking and why boundaries are critical to great innovation.

By Fiona Stevenson and Shelli Baltman

When talking about innovation, you often hear terms like “out of the box” and “blue-sky thinking.” While they sound sexy and exciting,  they make us cringe. Although innovation is ultimately about thinking expansively, great innovation typically happens when we set and then push our boundaries – but not when we ignore them altogether.

The goal of any innovation is commercial success and market impact. Starting an innovation project with a complete and total blue-sky approach inevitably means the team will spin its wheels, waste time and “boil the ocean.” Constraints and guardrails all strategically eliminate avenues of exploration, so our creativity is concentrated where it will be most commercially effective.

While most constraints are self-imposed at the beginning of an innovation journey, ones beyond our control can be equally powerful if leveraged to our advantage. While working in Europe as a global design brand manager on Pet Food, I, Fiona, came to work one day to the news that our biggest initiative of the next fiscal year had to be postponed due to an unforeseen technical challenge. I had four months (versus the standard 12) to design an initiative from scratch that would be big enough to fill the gaping hole that had been created in our pipeline.

The (unwelcome) constraint of time ended up being key to the project’s success for several reasons: First, it forced us to think about innovation in new ways, given product reformulation of any kind would be impossible within the narrow design window. We developed the first holistic commercial initiative in the brand’s history and a winning process for non-product initiative design, which was shared and reapplied across the organization.

Secondly, with insufficient time to field a new insights study to spark ideas, I had to get creative by “truffle hunting” for innovation insights in the consumer relations reports (the logs of calls received on our toll-free consumer line). I discovered a surprising number of people were calling the consumer line to thank the company for the visible transformation in the health of their pet they’d observed within a few weeks of switching to our brand. And from that spark, our big idea was born.

Finally, the team was forced to work far more quickly and effectively than ever before. When there’s a lot to gain (or lose) on the table, it’s amazing how people can come together to make things happen, challenging even the most sacred organizational timelines.

Here are some principles for setting constraints that will drive your team’s innovative energy in the most productive ways:

Look at the big picture: The objective, the competitive landscape, the regulatory environment and an organization’s assets, capabilities, history and even politics are all significant factors that need to be taken into account as you define boundaries. So for example, if you were looking to develop new product ideas for a beer brand, just a few of the factors you might consider include acquisitions (is buying an existing beer brand in scope?), colour of liquid (is green beer in scope?), type of liquid (is non-malt-based liquid in scope?) packaging (can we look beyond existing formats – e.g. cans and bottles?), benefit areas (are health claims/positioning in scope?), etc., etc. Take a broad view and then be crystal clear in defining what’s in and out of scope.

Before that’s locked, attack: Coming up with a list of constraints for an innovation project is only half the exercise – equally important is getting the team to push and challenge them to make sure they aren’t too restrictive. To do this, get the team to think of some actual example outcomes that would be blocked by a particular guardrail – if taking those off the table would make them very unhappy, loosen or re-frame the particular constraint to allow for more flexibility. Recently, we worked for a food client who was looking for big innovation opportunities, but our initial conversation of scope excluded anything sold outside of the grocery store. When told this may be too restrictive, the team readily opened up to other retail channels (drawing a full stop before they had to run their own retail channel).

Leverage constraints throughout the innovation journey: It can be tempting to turn a blind eye to market or scientific realities during the ideation phase and then use these limitations to filter out ideas later on. Besides the obvious risk – every idea the team has generated ends up getting killed – this approach prevents the constraints from acting as powerful tools to shape design thinking throughout the whole process. So face reality from the start, engage your toughest R&D, regulatory and legal resources early on and throughout the journey (even inviting them to creative ideation sessions) and watch the magic that happens.

Shelli Baltman and Fiona StevensonFiona Stevenson and Shelli Baltman are innovation director and president of innovation at Toronto-based Hotspex Innovation. Contact them at 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.