Creative Tension Is The Source Of Innovation In Teams

Creative tension is the source of innovation in teams. Creative tension is the natural tension created by the tug of war between managing current reality and moving towards a compelling vision of the future. In teams where conflict is not managed in an effective way, creative tension disappears and innovation stops.

In this post, I will share some data from a team and then explain:

  1. Not all innovation is risky.
  2. The source off all innovation is the same -  it is the naturally occurring creative tension between horizontal and vertical perspectives.
  3. Once you understand where innovation comes from you can intentionally design it into your team culture and organizational structure.

I am currently working with the senior team in a financial services organization. The team needs to come together and reinvent their business model. To do this, they will need to change their mindsets and system-of-roles.

I just collected data through interviews with team members and here is a snapshot of their current mindset. (Click each images to expand)




Not all innovation is risky innovation. Indeed some of the greatest innovations show up as simply common sense investments. There are many different kinds and levels of innovation including: product, marketing, sales, delivery, team culture etc.

The source of all innovation however is the same.  In any organization this source is the creative tension between horizontal intentions (a focus on managing risk and delivering short term results) and vertical intentions (a focus on innovating to create breakthroughs).

Horizontal solutions alone can lead to stagnation and therefore to slow organizational death.  While, vertical solutions alone can lead to unrealistic investments and therefore also to organizational death, only more quickly.

However, solutions that achieve both vertical and horizontal results are by definition sustainable. These kinds of solutions are what drive performance improvement to higher sustainable levels overtime. These kinds of solutions walk the narrow path between creating new possibilities, yet also managing risk.

Organizational structure is important. Different roles require different mindsets. For example, leaders in operational roles roles are expected to have a more horizontal mindset, while leaders in marketing or product development roles are expected to have a more vertical mindset. This principle also holds true for other types of roles including: board members/owners, enterprise leaders and business leaders. A major implication of this principle is that healthy conflict is not only inevitable between certain roles, but that it can be intentionally designed in as a source of innovation.

In particular, the mindsets of top leaders most affect decision-making and creative tension in an organization.  Therefore they most affect the capacity of that organization to innovate. Indeed, a characteristic of high-performing organizations is: those leaders who have mindsets that are more vertical are at the top of the decision-making hierarchy, while those leaders who have mindsets that are more horizontal are at the bottom.

Based on these principles, key observations from interviews with this team include:

  • The overall decision-making hierarchy within the larger organization is more horizontal and risk-adverse than vertical and innovation focused.
  • The system-of-roles is unclear and some key roles are missing.
  • The leader of this division operates from a more horizontal perspective and will need to shift her leadership style if the team hopes to adopt a new business model.

Try applying these questions to your team:

  • What is the dominant mindset on our team (horizontal or vertical)?
  • What should it be?
  • How are conflicts managed on your team (open and transparent or closed)?
  • What will need to change for you team to become more effective at innovation?

Here are some links:  

How to Manage Conflict in Virtual Teams

A New Idea