The Creative Tension Zone: Where Innovation Happens

September 1, 2017


The dictionary definition of ‘creative tension’ is: “a situation where disagreement or discord ultimately gives rise to better ideas or outcomes.”


As a Conflict Advisor, my definition is: “that place where the ideas of smart people are mixing and boiling and bumping into each other in ways they never have before. It is that space where huge ideas emerge, empires are built, and uncontrollable fun is around every corner. It is that place where people are opening up their minds to push out their best work.”


Does this sound like a spawning ground for robust innovation, dynamic decisions, nimble market entry, explosive growth? You bet!


However, this Pandora’s Box of creativity can very easily move away from the creative piece and toward the tension piece. The result? Workplace conflict that has a team mucking around in the status quo, becoming unproductive, even turning into prolonged and costly conflicts. This is the unfortunate reason why companies sometimes choose to play it safe, thus missing opportunities for innovation, growth, and an inspired workforce.


Harnessing good conflict outcomes: The Creative Tension Zone


Conflict is a natural occurrence any time there are two or more people in the same space who have a divergent idea, need, or want. It’s normal, inevitable, and every organization experiences it. Proactively engaging with conflict is a proven best practice for creating the environment in which creative tension flourishes. This environment, where strong relationships and bold ideas mix and bang together, is called the Creative Tension Zone.


Organizations with a team that thrives in the Creative Tension Zone are found to achieve:


·         New ideas and innovation

·         Better decision quality

·         Creativity that inspires the entire organization

·         Higher productivity

·         More nimble market entry

·         Increased retention of a workforce that’s motivated and appreciated

·         Higher profitability and shareholder value


Teams fall out of the Creative Tension Zone for a variety of reasons, tipping into destructive conflict. The warning signs are always there - and predictable. Being as aware as possible of what is happening in and around human relations in your workplace is key. When you know these dynamics, you become well-equipped to manage these relations and build a strong, productive team.


Conflict zones and the workplace team


The Conflict Curve is a tool we have adapted very effectively in our work with teams and leaders of teams. Based on industry data, our research and experience, it represents a continuum of team dynamics from status quo to the Creative Tension Zone to unmanaged negative conflict, to project failure. Here is an overview:


Status Quo - Low-performance conflict zone. Your team could be functioning adequately, but creativity is stifled by conflict avoidance (a room full of “yes people”) or ad hoc conflicts which are not captured for team innovation and running under the radar. In this zone, personnel (“people problem”) costs are average, conflict is low, and so is team performance.


High-performance conflict zone. Your team is in the realm of Creative Tension where the seeds of innovation are sprouting. Members are engaging conflict in safe, bold interactions. Communication is open, engagement is active, creative ideas are shared, captured and become part of the project process. In this zone, conflict is at a median level, personnel costs are the lowest, and performance is highest.


Negative outcomes conflict zone. Conflict is not managed properly so unproductive conflict springs up and, ignored, continues to grow. Disagreements lead to disputes which, if not addressed, result in the inability for those parties to negotiate. The atmosphere begins to feel unsafe, trust issues arise, and morale suffers. In this zone, levels of conflict continue to rise, costs (financial and interpersonal) increase, and productivity steadily declines.


Project failure conflict zone. Unchecked, unproductive conflict leads to an impasse or deadlock. Actions become escalated, often resulting in the need for outside mediation, and sometimes looking to the legal system for support. In this zone, conflict and personnel costs rise dangerously, productivity drops precipitously. Projects, and entire businesses (especially startups), fail as a result.


Your team in the Creative Tension Zone


One of the biggest challenges any good leader faces is: How do you find that balance in your workplace culture in which conflict is harnessed so that positive outcomes happen, without tipping into issues and behaviors that could be very messy?


It starts with recognizing where your team is sitting - in real time and at any given juncture - on the Conflict Curve. Because the further along the slope your team finds itself, the harder it is to return to normal productive relations. This is a key assessment that will bring you the awareness you’ll need to build a team that thrives in the Creative Tension Zone, that sweet spot of innovation, productivity, and happy people


Which conflict zone is your team currently operating in? What is one action you can take to move the team closer to the High Performance zone?


About the author

Mark Batson Baril is a Conflict advisor and the Founder of Resologics. Resologics provides services to organizational teams that enhance their abilities to work with conflict. Resologics fully engages with each team to understand their needs and the opportunities for boosting team performance. Through a modularized approach, a unique engagement plan surfaces that is an ideal match to each team.

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