July, 2014 Newsletter



Ingredients for a mouthwatering dish.

Innovation practitioners love developing metaphors to represent the complexities of our field and offerings. But innovation is in no way static. By its own nature, innovation—and the tools to hit upon it, is continually evolving. That said, it can be quite a challenge to find a good comparison for the seemingly shifting sands of what we do. But I’d like to offer one that I feel does the job quite well. Photography, along with being a personal passion of mine, is actually an excellent metaphor for many elements of an ideal innovation project.

Considering innovation vs. photography side-by-side on a macro level, they’re both:

  • A process and an art form.
  • Constantly being made over through the wonders of modern technology.
  • High energy endeavors that start with:
    • Chaos (photography with billions of scattered photons/idea generation with a cloud of insights);
    • And move toward creating order (photography with an image that tells a story or evokes emotion/idea generation with refined concepts, and a strategy with a clear purpose and feasible next steps.) 

With this metaphor in mind, I’d like to carry it across four areas that are essential to photography and innovation projects alike: Noise, Focus, Speed, and Subject.   

ISO Example


What’s ISO?

The International Organization for Standardization (or ISO) provides the standards used to represent film speed—or the equivalent sensitivity of a digital camera’s sensor. The term hails from the days of film when the chemical composition of the film determined how much light was absorbed during the exposure. 

In today’s digital camera, this setting allows the photographer to decide how much of the light absorbed by the camera’s sensor should be kept as the picture, and how much should be dismissed as noise. Lower ISO settings produce clearer images by filtering out unwanted light and electromagnetic interference, but require longer shutter times—requiring that the camera be completely still, and wreaking havoc with the focus if the camera is not on a tripod. Higher ISO settings will perform better in low light, but are more susceptible to noise caused by the electromagnetic radiation produced by the camera itself—resulting in tiny specs of color and a grainy appearance. A low ISO will help the photographer capture very fine detail, while a high ISO will help the photographer capture a scene in difficult conditions. 

Project Application: Creating Objectives and a Project Purpose

Right from the start, deciding what counts as quality input—and what to filter out as noise—is the first step in ordering the creative chaos. 

Right from the start, deciding what counts as quality input—and what to filter out as noise—is the first step in ordering the creative chaos. It’s important to set these standards early on, so that the end product not only captures the fine details, but does so before the whole image goes out-of-focus. 

To set an innovation project up for success, initial conversations with key stakeholders should identify clear objectives—and create a project purpose. This acts as the framework and filter for all of the remaining work to be done. These objectives not only set guidelines for an innovation team, but also apply to idea generation, target area identification, idea selection, concept development and refinement. These objectives provide the basis for well-aligned decision-making: creating a mutually agreed-upon list of criteria with which to judge, without being so restrictive as to throttle creativity. Additionally, the project purpose serves as an effective filter for outside input (such as specially-recruited in-session stim panelists, ethnography or online panels), and provides a structure for ideation that allows for stretch—while still staying aware of the project’s limits. 

Focus Example


What’s Aperture?

Aperture is the camera setting that determines the size of the opening through which light will pass. Adjusting this setting determines the depth of field—or how much of the image is in focus. It also affects how much light will enter the camera. Aperture is often set based on the types of images the photographer would like to create: 

Opening the aperture wide will result in a shallow depth of field. This brings a narrower area into focus, blurring the background.

  • A wide aperture is used to call attention to a specific subject, obscuring the details of the scene around it.
  • While a wide aperture captures one aspect of a scene in a compelling way, it can make the context of the scene difficult to determine. 

Restricting the aperture opening to a fraction of its capacity allows more of a scene to come into focus.

  • Narrow apertures are used to take pictures of landscapes, and scenes in which detail throughout the depth of the image is desired.
  • A narrow aperture captures all of the detail of the scene, but is more difficult to compose—and can lack focus or meaning if done incorrectly. 

Project Application: Creative Process Facilitation

It is the responsibility of a creative process facilitator to build a project design and process that ensures that the area of focus is neither too narrow, nor too broad.

Innovation, like photography, requires experienced guidance to successfully utilize content and deliver on project objectives. An effective facilitator not only understands how to uncover ideas that are far outside of a client’s business plan, but can also avoid collapsing into the close-in, safe ideas that won’t deliver the “push” innovation firms are hired for. 

Good facilitators should also be masters of process, actively guiding each project based on a client’s needs—while keeping each participant focused on the goal. During ideation, insights and possibilities co-created with customers should be facilitated with a process designed to optimize quantity, variety, novelty and detail over the course of the session. At the convergence stage, facilitators should again encourage clients to focus on their business objectives (while still allowing some stretch and risk-taking) as they go through the difficult process of selecting their top ideas.

In the end, although the scope of a project is set by an innovation team, it is the responsibility of a creative process facilitator to build a project design and process that ensures that the area of focus is neither too narrow, nor too broad—and results in the best innovation scene possible. 

Shutter Speed Example


Shutter Speed - How much do you let in?

Shutter Speed is the speed at which the shutter covering the camera’s light sensor opens, regulating the amount of light that hits the sensor for a given photograph. Shutter speed can vary greatly depending on the desired effect, lighting conditions and other camera settings. 

A slow shutter speed lets in more light, making it useful for scenes that have many details, or are dimly lit. The majority of impressive night shots employ a low shutter speed. However, if the ISO and aperture are set incorrectly, the picture can appear washed out—making it too bright, and lacking in shadows and dark colors.

A fast shutter speed is ideal for capturing a moving target, or a highly-detailed photo close-in to the subject. But if the shutter speed is too fast, the image can appear dark or unresolved.

Project Application: Project Stimulus and Setting Criteria

Letting in too much stimulus can make a project lose focus with a myriad of directions. At the same time, letting in too little may cause you to miss out on all the possibilities you wished to explore.

Time is at a premium during ideation—and co-creating with customers (especially if they’re trained in creative problem solving techniques) can generate a huge amount of content. But letting in too much stimulus can make a project lose focus with a myriad of directions. At the same time, letting in too little may cause you to miss out on all the possibilities you wished to explore. So it’s vitally important to make sure key decision-makers on any innovation team are empowered to have the final say on content—how much, how broad and how varied—and then stick to that plan. 

During ideation, these decision-makers should be able to decide when they’ve gotten enough—and let their facilitator know they are satisfied with the number of possibilities (whether it’s generated by customers or by their own team). During convergence, it should also be up to the key decision-makers to resolve how many ideas are worth pursuing, as well as how the final concepts will be developed.


Subject Example


Why take a picture, anyway? 

There’s plenty of thought that goes into choosing a subject and taking a photo. The photographer must consider what is interesting about the image—why it’s worth taking the picture in the first place. And that’s only the beginning of the process. 

The colors in a picture are composed of wavelengths of light that are not absorbed by the material they are hitting. The photons of light bouncing off your subject create color, brightness, shadow and contrast—everything that makes up an image.

 So, after picking a subject, it’s just as important to frame it well. That way the image is positioned properly, and has the right balance and proportions. It’s about taking into account the interplay of light and shadow, along with the arrangement of colors—then using these conditions to call attention to, and tell an interesting story about the subject.

Project Application: The purpose and the participants

The real beauty—and usefulness—of a cross-functional innovation team stems from the varied experiences and perspectives of its members.

During ideation, the purpose statement outlines the reason you’re there in the first place. Once the purpose is agreed upon, an effective facilitator should work to maintain focus around the subject, and accomplish the goals set out to achieve the purpose. In fact, helping the team “stick to the subject” should be one of the driving factors of the whole project. 

Aligning with the project purpose should not yield one-note ideas, however. One way to effectively achieve rich, wide-ranging ideas is encouraging cross-functional innovation teams—with members spanning the organization and bringing together representatives from Brand Management, R&D, Marketing and more. 

The real beauty—and usefulness—of a cross-functional innovation team (who also opt for a heterogeneous mix of customers to co-create with) stems from the varied experiences and perspectives of its members. This variety adds light, shadow, and color via the ideas produced in project. This in turn shapes the output of the project—along with the formation of the ultimate product or service. That way the final concepts are all based on the same subject, but are able to differ in theme and detail. 



Connecting things that may at first seem unrelated really helps you think about your objectives in a new—and hopefully better—light.

So as we come to the end of our photography metaphor, here are a few things we’ve learned about building a successful innovation project:

  • Identifying your project’s purpose not only sets you up for well-aligned decision-making, but provides a helpful space to stretch during ideation.
  • Staying focused on the immediate project objectives, while still remaining open to some risk-taking, results in some of the best innovation possibilities.
  • Knowing when enough stimulus is enough is the key to landing on an optimal number of ideas for a successful convergence process.
  • An innovation team composed of members spanning across many different functions of an organization is an excellent way to achieve richer, more varied ideas.

This is a pretty good list so far. And I could probably keep generating further comparisons with more time. But it’s also an excellent lead-in to just one more similarity: both practices are vastly enriched when approached with a creative mindset. And in fact, this whole on-going metaphor is a great example of this point. You see, connecting things that may at first seem unrelated really helps you think about your objectives in a new—and hopefully better—light. By comparing innovation to photography, I was able to think about my objective differently, and resulted in new articulations and nuances for a subject I’m quite familiar with.

This is why good facilitators build mental excursions into innovation projects—and even encourage participants to stop paying attention during ideation—anything that pops in your head could be the seed for your next breakthrough idea. The key is bringing that breakthrough thinking back to the topic at hand. Try it the next time you’re working on new ideas—and see if a metaphor or two can help breathe some new life into your innovation project.

Greg Cobb is an Innovation Process Facilitator at Ideas To Go. He facilitates customer-centered innovation for Fortune 500 companies across all market categories and industries

©2014 Ideas To Go, Inc. All rights reserved.

Greg Cobb

Greg Cobb is a Creative Process Designer and Facilitator as well as the creator of Ideas To Go’s Inspire® visual survey platform. Greg has a BA in Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania.  Prior to joining Ideas To Go in 2011, Greg led the US consumer division at a leading global market research firm.  Facilitating innovation sessions and moderating consumer interviews and groups since 2007, Greg has worked extensively in most consumer categories as well as pharma, B2B, and automotive.