Omelettes and Boundaries

You don’t make an omelette without breaking eggs

Traditional saying
Transgressing boundaries

Creation of something new requires people to cross boundaries set by the old. Transgression doesn’t mean destruction, disrespect or lack of care are required. We just must make a choice to support the new.

Boundaries of Creation and Innovation

The biggest challenge for most innovation projects is the need to cross barriers and boundaries. Organisations are full of systems, structures and rules that reinforce the way things are done now. Creating the new inevitably means making smart decisions on when to work across and around those rules.

I have seen teams tie themselves in knots and ultimately compromise their project’s success fitting within the existing system and processes. When many of those boundaries are scar tissue rather than real rules to facilitate safety or success, that presents a major cost to organisations.

Policies are organizational scar tissue. They are codified overreactions to situations that are unlikely to happen again. They are collective punishment for the misdeeds of an individual. This is how bureaucracies are born.

Jason Fried, ReWork

Teams need to recognise that change and creation requires crossing boundaries at times, if not always. Many of these boundaries will be nearly sacred and scary. The question is how to make the right choices on which lines to cross and to do so respectfully.

Breaking eggs

Too often, we see the ‘breaking eggs’ saying used to justify wanton reckless damage. That’s not how you make an omelette. An omelette takes care and attention. You may need to crack the shells to start the omelette but from there it is gentle stirring, careful heat, close attention and so on. An omelette is not smashed eggs burnt in a pan.

You can’t disregard boundaries entirely. They aren’t all bureaucracy. Many exist for valid reasons of safety or performance. We must also take care to respect and understand those whose lives and roles are shaped by the boundaries. Challenging their givens can be traumatic and threatening.

Often it is the exact people who live and work on the boundaries as guardians or maintenance who best understand the reasons for and workings of the frontier. Take the time to listen to their stories, hear their insights and seek their support. You may just find a light that can guide you forward here. Their doubts and concerns will get you outside of your own project bubble. Having a guide across the edge can be essential to your success. They may turn out to be some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the new as they know the cost of the old boundaries so well.

Even more important is to recognise that our customer or ultimate beneficiary of our work is outside our organisation. That is a boundary we need to cross to look back in to the organisation. Many times standing with the customer looking back, all the carefully tended boundaries inside the organisation look like fiefdoms and powerplays rather than essential steps in a process. That perspective shared within the organisation can be an essential agent of change. Align with your customer or external stakeholder to create it.

Despite the violent language of disruption, hacking and the like, great innovation is an act of careful creation, much like the process of making a fine omelette. Make sure your change has the same degree of attention and makes careful choices about the boundaries to cross.


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