Change Your Frame of Reference for Better Innovation


I got a new camera recently, and the interesting thing about it is the features that it doesn’t have.  It has a fixed-length lens, which means that there’s no zoom.  There are some good technical reasons for this, but the interesting thing is that this small change has completely transformed the way that I think about photography.

Nancy and I are birders, so for us, we’ve always used optics to get us closer to things.  A good pair of binoculars can get us a clear view of a small bird in the top of a tree, or a big bird a long way away.  Zooming means that we don’t have to spend hours stalking closer to get a good view of a bird.  For Nancy, zoom on her camera means that she can get good shots of birds that we can only just make out with the naked eye.

So I’ve always associated optical gear, both cameras and binoculars, as things that get me closer.


But there’s none of that with a fixed lens.  You actually have to think about where you’re standing relative to what you’re shooting.  It makes photography much more mentally engaging, and a lot more challenging.  So I’ve been learning a lot.

Here is how Ken Rockwell puts it on his excellent photography blog:

With a fixed lens, or a few fixed lenses, you already know the camera’s field-of-view as you wander around. With just one fixed lens or or two, you’re already seeing what makes good compositions before you even stop to take a picture. You know what fits in your field-of-view, and you’re in compositional seeing mode as you walk about.

With a zoom, you’re not thinking as you walk around. With a zoom, you aren’t thinking about how to arrange elements inside a rectangle until after you’ve already stopped for something. Maybe that something will make a good picture, maybe not. You’re not even thinking; you’re just wandering.

After using a fixed lens for a while, you become intimately familiar with its field of view without having to look through the camera. Since you already know what fits as you walk around, so you can start seeing your compositions in your head as you move about. You can see from different angles and different heights just by moving around, without needing your camera.

He’s got a lot more to say on the subject, and you should read the whole post (and if you’re interested in photography, it’s a must-read site).

The bottom line is that changing the frame through which I view things is making me a substantially better photographer.

The same can be true in business – if you want to innovate, changing your frame of reference is a great strategy.  Nilofer Merchant talks about this in her book 11 Rules for Creating Value in the #SocialEra, where she talks about the value of openness (a topic that Ralph Ohr just addressed here as well):

Banking on openness is like saying you have hope in people to create.

I point out this frame because it is so easy for any of us to not realize that this frame changes our vantage point. I ask you to think about what frames you are using to view the world. Frames are simply windows to shape understanding. You may be drawn to one and repelled by the other without even realizing it. But learning to apply different frames and appreciating the difference deepens our understanding. Galileo discovered this when he built his first telescope. Each lens he added contributed to a more accurate image of the heavens. Successful people do the same. They reframe until they understand the issue at hand.

Openness is a frame that helps us understand the social era. After all, we can continue to hold ideas tightly, but we must realize that this means they can’t be shared ideas. The remain alone, isolated, and separated so that they can’t be built upon, refined, and shaped into something bigger.


Right now, think about a frame that you take for granted.  What assumptions lie underneath this frame?  How does the world look different if you look through a different frame?

Reframing makes me a better photographer.  Reframing makes us better innovators. Reframing helps us understand how business works now.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

9 thoughts on “Change Your Frame of Reference for Better Innovation

  1. Very thought provoking. I avoid constraint at all costs instinctively, but think that I am a great example of the paradox of too much choice leading to lack of making that choice!

    • It’s an interesting issue Ellie. There is a fair bit of evidence that shows that constraints actually increase creativity. That’s certainly been my experience with this camera. But I think that most people naturally try to avoid constraints…

  2. Tim – great post. I concur that constraints can really foster the innovative side of people. I often work with engineers and scientist that are trying to find the “sweet spot” with a company that is looking for innovation. When we have face-to-face meetings to define how we might work together, it is nearly impossible to move forward without some form of constraints. Without them, the possibilities are too endless to be actionable.

    • Thanks for the comment Nanette. You’ve framed (!) the issue perfectly – with a completely blank canvas, it’s often impossible to even figure out where to get started. Constraints are undervalued!

  3. Constraints as a word has such a negative connotation for people, yet they provide such valuable focus and stimulate new thinking as you aptly note. And constraints don’t have to be micro-level shackles, but can often take the form of more macro-level metrics or principles that nonetheless disrupt the frames and thinking in place.

    Whenever I watch the IDEO shopping cart video, I’m always taken by David Kelley when he says “We have to tell them what needs to optimize their solutions to.” His statement refers to refocusing the small groups working on the cart redesign, but his suggestion is one of imposing constraints in order to focus the design thinking that is occurring.

    • Excellent points Jeffrey – thanks! The IDEO video is a great example. And I definitely agree that the constraints can definitely be macro-level principles. I would argue that a lot of the hidden assumptions that hold us back are precisely that…

  4. I like this. What I find is that a habit of resisting an old constraint (from childhood, even!) long after it matters, actually induces a kind of dysfunctional false freedom – wandering around (mentally). Yet constraints in art, or sailing that feel natural do yield all sorts of interesting innovation, adaptation and acceptance. All of which help the energy equation.

    In art getting a whole life drawing pose down in 2 minutes can produce something dynamic and wonderful that gets killed in 10 minutes (believe me, I’ve done it).

    In sailing, the trick is holding the goal loosely enough that you can still get there without breaking the boat and crew, adapting to the conditions.

    But there is a difference from consciously deciding to impose a constraint – which is a bit tougher. Yet you’re right, it too yields innovation and that is positive feedback to do it again!

    Good post.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Sean. Those are two great examples.

      You raise a point that I don’t really address in the post, but it’s important. There are differences between constraints that we impose, and constraints that are just there as part of our set of assumptions about how the world works. They probably work differently when it comes to innovation and creativity…

Comments are closed.