In an innovation workshop I was leading this week, my class noted the number of conflicting forces involved in becoming a leader of innovation:

–     The near-term needs of the operations of a business often conflict with the longer-term needs of growth and innovation.

–     The quality tools of Six Sigma are very different from the creative tools of innovation.

–     The incentives for motivating operating performance are different from the incentives for motivating the creation of new ideas.

This led me to think about the role that forces play in the world of innovation.

Force, stress and tension

A number of years ago, Teresa M. Amabile, the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, conducted research that suggested that time pressure was not effective in generating innovative ideas.  It only produced stress.  So using the force of pressure is not likely to be successful in stimulating innovative ideas.

Creative tension, however, can often play a stimulating role in successful innovation.  I first read about creative tension in Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline.  When I think of creative tension, I think of something I often see in the movies.  “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again” is an old familiar plotline that effectively uses creative tension.  This plotline captures the attention of the audience in the beginning, engages us throughout, and then sends us home smiling at the end.

Uncomfortable in the gap

How does it work?  In the beginning of the movie, boy and girl meet and the we are led to believe that they belong together – we think that’s “the way things should be” (TWTSB).  Then something terrible happens and the two are separated – and for much of the movie, that’s “the way things are” (TWTA).  When the TWTA is different from the TWTSB, a “gap” is created.  We feel uncomfortable in gaps because they produce in our minds an energy, which we interpret as a negative condition.  We want to see things get back to the TWTSB so that the negative energy can be released.

Innovation from the gap

As a leader of innovation, what about trying to instill a sense of the way things should be in your organization or marketplace?  Can you paint a picture of a preferred future (TWTSB) that is in contrast to today (TWTA)?  That gap could cause your team to feel the energy from this creative tension, which can be good motivation for identifying creative and innovative solutions.  When they find some solutions, the tension/energy is released and the team is happy with their efforts.

That might even send you home smiling as well.

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