Saturday, 8 June 2013

Creative tension?

"Holding two opposing ideas in mind will be even more important in the future....The dilemmas of the future will be more grating, more gnawing, and more likely to induce feelings of hopelessness.  Leaders must be able to flip dilemmas over and find the hidden opportunities."
Futurist Bob Johansen, Institute for the Future.
Addressing seemingly opposing ideas in our organisations is often a leaders challenge. These 'either /or' choices or two extremes could include; 
  • competition or collaboration
  • innovation and change or stability and sustainability
  • quality or speed
  • flexibility or consistency
  • action or reflection
  • consultant lead initiatives or organisational lead initiatives
  • compliance/directive or collaborative decision making 
  • contribution to the wider industry/sector/community or focus on organisational outcomes.
They are also known as tensions, dilemmas, paradoxes, contradictions, competing values, unsolvable problems, independent values and polarities... In the following table - see if you can identify which polarity or dilemma is underlying each statement (answers in column on the left)

The example below illustrates the apparent choice between an organisation that is stable, and one that is changing.  Both options have an up-side or benefits, but interestingly both options also have a down-side or risks.  

How do we decide which choice to support? How do we perceive these tensions? Do these tensions need to be resolved? Can there be strengths in both end of the polarity?

Perhaps what is required is a shift from "Either or” thinking to “Both and” can we actually say yes to both options, being aware that this will require careful navigation of seemingly opposing beliefs and approaches.
The following principles are thought provoking.....
  • Principle #1: All values come in pairs and these pairs are interdependent
  • Principle #2: When you actively work towards the upside of both values in a polarity you create a virtuous cycle leading to a higher purpose
  • Principle #3: When you over-emphasize one value over time, to the neglect of its pair, you get a) the downsides of the chosen value and eventually b) the downsides of the other value as well
  • Principle #4: There are two truths in every polarity, and neither is the whole truth.  
What would an organisation gain by holding and exploring the tensions rather than trying to remove them?   In order to explore a polarity and navigate a path of leveraging the benefits of each extreme a leaders task is to;
  • to value and hold the tension rather than try to resolve it
  • avoid over-representing one end of the tension in conversations even to the point of playing the devil’s advocate to promote debate and thinking
  • promote the ongoing debate and discussion of the unique solutions to be found in addressing these dilemmas
  • work hard to create a hybrid -  incorporating the best of both worlds…
It is suggested that on-going collaboration and sustained high performance  can be facilitated through the artful management of these paradoxes.  Not only will this allow organisations to avoid the downsides of each polarity, but also foster creativity innovation and experimentation.  Here's an example of how an organisation has planned to specifically harness the tension between long term planning and short term responsiveness.  

(Acknowledgements to Meredith Osmond (Though Partners) and Russ Gaskin (Co-creative Consulting) 


  1. other than the reason that i need this article as a reference for one of my assignments i think it is very useful to read for my own self as well. thank you for updating and keep updating

  2. you have explained it so well. i am glad i stumbled upon your blog. wish i had sooner. this was my topic for next week's presentation. now i have some hope that i can get through it


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