In every organization, there are natural and competing tensions:
- Sales wants to spend money; Finance wants to preserve it.
- Product Development wants to keep refining the offering; Operations wants to get it out the door.
- HR wants to invest in people development; IT wants to invest in tech infrastructure.
The friction between these (seemingly) opposing forces can be an organization’s downfall. We’re all too familiar with the silos and turf wars that result from competing agendas. Yet what has been less explored are the organizations and leaders who successfully leverage this tension to produce breakthrough results.
After a decade of strategy work with leaders in organizations large and small, we’ve seen first-hand that the ability to leverage what we refer to as “the tension of opposites” is a lynchpin for driving innovation, creativity, and greater workplace happiness.
Here are three techniques you can use to harness the tension of opposites in your own organization:
1. Decouple your core objectives from your implementation plan
One of the biggest obstacles towards innovative thinking is the over-attachment to existing plans and models. To turn that tension into creativity, it’s helpful to differentiate between the destination, where you want to end up, and the specific roads available to get there.
For example, perhaps you can relate to this tense exchange we recently observed in an Executive session: The subject at hand was whether or not to spend additional money on advertising.
The CFO dismisses the idea immediately, saying, “Our cash flow is already hurting! We can’t spend this kind of money.” The VP of Sales counters with, “We’re never going have more cash if we don’t drum up leads and improve our pipeline!”
Both sides are focused on their own metrics and implementation objectives. The CFO’s plan is to preserve cash, while the VP of Sales wants to push for revenue growth. Instead of arguing about the conflicting approaches, which will likely only harden their attachments to their individual ideas, you can jumpstart a more creative conversation by going upstream. The core objective in this conversation is one both parties share: To create a sustainable, prosperous business now and in the future.
Aligning on a destination first, a purpose for the conversation, gives both sides clarity around the end state. In this case, it enabled the Executive team to consider alternative ways to grow revenue while preserving cash flow. They started brainstorming all the ways they could accomplish their shared objectives, and dozens of ideas came forth. Decoupling their individual solutions from the true objective flipped a switch in the meeting. A contentious conversation suddenly became creative.
2. Sit with the uncertainty for at least 10 minutes (or a whole meeting if you can stand it).
True innovation is rarely produced with a both sides “meeting in the middle” approach. The traditional – you give a little, I give a little, and we both walk away annoyed approach – hardly sets the stage for greatness. Yet too often, it’s the default model organizational conversations and decisions making.
Instead of settling for a watered-down mix of existing ideas, be willing to (temporarily) operate in a space of uncertainty, without pushing for an immediate concrete solution.
In our work with leadership teams, we call this the messy middle. It’s the moment in the meeting when there’s no clear route in sight, the ideas are starting to get abstract, and no one knows where it might end up. In the research for our latest book, Selling with Noble Purpose, we found a willingness to sit with this uncertainty, even for as little as 10 minutes, can improve results.
The challenge is, a gauzy discussion can be uncomfortable for high performers, who are often eager to have things decided. Setting a fixed time (like 10 minutes) for sitting with uncertainy tells top perfomers, we are going somewhere, and it opens the space for new ideas, questions, perhaps even a breakthrough.
3. Embrace the power of ‘AND’
Do you want it done fast, or do you want it done right?” Sometimes situations are a true either-or choice. However, in many cases, we succumb too quickly to a false dichotomy. For example, we can all cite instances where a top performer did something quickly and accurately at the same time.
Our world is filled with these false dichotomies: right versus left, freedom versus responsibility, nurture versus nature, strategic versus tactical. Our brain creates these distinctions because they act as shortcuts to help us sort information and make decisions quickly. It’s helpful in some instances, but when you’re trying to drive future innovation, false dichotomies can stymie your thinking.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Next time you find yourself (or your group) alternating between this or that, temporarily suspend your belief in the false dichotomy by replacing the word “or” with “and.” This simple word switch unlocks opportunities for bigger thinking.
Leveraging the tension of opposites can be a powerful tool skill for driving innovation and creativity in every aspect of our lives. It’s worth noting that Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar – the instructor of Harvard’s most popular class PSY 1504 (Positive Psychology) – describes the process of achieving lifetime happiness as learning how to live for today and tomorrow at the same time. Rather than sacrificing one for the other, the ability to hold the tension of seemingly opposite goals enables you to make better decisions and live a happier life.
When the stakes are high, and there’s pressure to make fast decisions, it’s tempting to fall into a binary approach. Yet a leader’s ability to hold, and ultimately harness, creative tension can mean the difference between a breakthrough team and one that is merely benign. Use these strategies in your own life and work to leverage the tension of opposites and drive your own bold results.