Designing for creative tension . . .

Designing for creative tension . . .

What constitutes healthy, creative tension in an organization? I’ve been pondering this question for some time not really understanding what the question was really about. Having done a little reading on the subject (will probably make it into my PhD thesis), I now feel able to pass comment having gained a rudimentary level of knowledge.

One of the things that both intrigues and, to be honest slightly irritates me, is the use of sporting and war metaphors within business language. It’s often accompanied by aggressive behaviour that is probably an unhealthy expression of latent frustration within the work place rather than some motivational sense of future winning. However, I am probably holding a level of unhealthy bias myself regarding this, scoring a goal/try/touchdown is an achievement against an opponent as is winning a contract or piece of work. In business there are winners and losers and generally speaking we all tend to be on either side of this equation at some point in time, just some people are better than others at presenting a glossy front on how things are going for them.

It’s, therefore, fitting that much of the inspiration for this piece comes from an article based on lecture published on sports management for the North American Society for Sport Management (NASSM).

Firstly, what is ‘creative tension’? Peter Senge defines it as the difference between the vision and the current reality. Of course, the difficulty with this statement is that reality is a dynamic and opaque concept at the individual level. There are multiple realities at any point we are engaged in a subject with more than one person. For example, you’re seated in a meeting and there is a presentation by a colleague, it’s an intensely boring presentation, but it is important for your team that it goes well. You are intensely engaged word by word as you recall the practice sessions you’ve witnessed hoping that he/she gets all the pertinent facts across to the intended audience. On the other side of the table is the person your team is trying to impress, they are sitting there wondering how long they have to listen to the boring diatribe having already predetermined who’s getting the contract/piece or work, etc. His/her reality is that this is a waste of time; your reality is this is really important to impress the ‘big guy/gal’. Reality is neither static nor the same for everyone; in fact, I argue it is most definitely an individual concern.

So, in order to name any ‘creative tension’ we better be sure we understand each other’s perspectives; otherwise we fill in the blanks for ourselves with assumptions and prejudices that may not become reality until we have forced them into self-fulfilling prophecies. It is somewhat ironic that organisational tensions can be born out of lack of understanding or worse any attempt to understand each other’s perspectives, our starting positions are likely to be different, but often are similar enough to move forward productively. This is something that Glenda Eoyang talks very eloquently on, “what’s the difference that makes a difference?”

How do you understand the base point to begin with? Even if you know someone really well, an important dynamic of engaging people is to ensure they articulate for themselves where they are at on a subject. But how do you do that without it becoming “follow the leader/group think”, aka – the first to goes says one thing, other people build onto it with similar perspectives to the point where anyone with an alternative point of view is marginalised and or mute. This, of course, will come down to well thought-out facilitation prior, but is something that is often lost with the need for speed and decisiveness. And, of course, there is also the issue of pre-existing person to person tensions within an organisation in question. On the latter, Naomi Stanford includes a helpful exercise in one of her books on Organization Design taken from Simmons book on organizational territorial games, although I wonder how mature individuals and organizations need to be in order to use it:

Understanding Your Territorial Drive

Inglis* points out that, “The tensions can feel intensely personal and political, and they can be defining moments for change.” Clearly we need to understand each other’s true perspective in order to move forward. Although this article on LinkedIn sparked my attention this week related to organisational values, it suggests that it is a pretty futile exercise to article them essentially because of the social constructionist nature of values themselves – they are historically bound, dynamic, and context specific if they are meaningful, otherwise, in themselves they are too vague to be of practical use? Sometimes one wonders should we even bother?

Certainly the territorial drive and articulating where you are on a subject is critical in order to get a sense of perspective and form a direction. But how do we ensure that we have healthy disagreement that does not in itself become intractable positions that people cannot move away from? I guess the other issue is that creative tensions in themselves are valuable in order to enact change. On their own, they have limited utility particularly if the organisation does not need to alter direction. I get the sense that we are so caught up in the need for change that the notion of not changing in an organisation has become an anathema. Concepts of continuous improvements, OD and the speed of technological evolution might mean we look to change things for the sake of it because it has become a normative expectation within organisational vernacular. This then leads us back to creative tensions and how to manage/encourage/discourage/align, it is bound up with the vision and direction that the organisation is headed. This needs to be clear, simple enough to understand whilst being complex enough to truly encompass the nature of future reality (although whose future reality we are selecting…that’s a different question altogether!).

What is your perspective on the healthiness of creative tensions and organisational change issues? It’s an issue that organization designers have to manage all of the time. However, I feel we give it limited attention as it is assumed knowledge within the toolkit of the consultant, therefore, we do not question where we are on the subject.

Thanks for reading.


Please follow me on @TalkOrgDesign


Stuart Wigham

ODF Board Member and active EODF Member


*Inglis, S. (2007). Creative tensions and conversations in the academy. Journal of Sport Management. Retrieved from


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