How do today’s leaders create profound innovation in the face of complexity? According to an executive report by the IBM Institute for Business Value, they do it by “embracing dynamic tensions.”
In a report released in July, “Cultivating organizational creativity in an age of complexity,” Barbara J. Lombardo and Daniel John Roddy assert that “leaders who embrace the dynamic tension between creative disruption and operational efficiency can create new models of extraordinary value. . . . By harnessing the energy of opposites, creative leaders and their organizations can benefit from new assumptions that replace less effective ‘either/or’ approaches.”
The IBM researchers additionally found that “to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world, creative leaders avoid choosing between unacceptable alternatives. Instead, they use the power inherent in these dualities to invent new assumptions and create new models geared to an ever-changing world.”
The report lists seven key tensions that leaders can creatively optimize to create innovative breakthroughs:
- Local and Global: “The new generation of social media-inspired globalists will push past tired management models and East versus West cultural stereotypes”
- Real World and Digital World: “Forward-thinking business designs will seek to create new value at the intersection of the physical and virtual worlds”
- Systems Thinking and Design Thinking: “Finding solutions to complex problems requires both analytical and creative thinking styles working together”
- Business, Society, and the Environment: “Truly sustainable growth and profitability comes from solutions that address the needs of society and the environment”
- Zero Sum and Expand the Pie: “Creative leadership is about seeking opportunities for shared value creation, even in the toughest of times and the most difficult of circumstances”
- Power and Influence: “Organizational creativity thrives when leadership styles adjust as needed to support both top-down and bottom-up innovation initiatives”
- Operational Efficiency and Creative Disruption: “Complex systems (for example, the human body) are able to adapt in an orderly fashion to unexpected challenges because their many distinctive parts work smoothly together”
The body of work known as “polarity thinking” (or “polarity management”), pioneered by Dr. Barry Johnson, provides a practical and sophisticated method for leveraging dynamic tensions (or polarities). Polarities are situations like seven key tensions described above, in which both conflicting points of view are true. When leaders manage this ongoing, natural tension, they can often channel it into a creative synergy that leads to superior outcomes.
Leveraging polarities involves making a fundamental distinction between solvable either/or problems and both/and polarities, which are inherently unsolvable (but leverage-able). The ability to shift from exclusive reliance on either/or thinking to leveraging both/and thinking is a critical competency for success in an increasingly complex and interdependent world.
Tremendous breakthroughs can occur when forward-thinking organizations learn to harness the power of polarities to their advantage.
Russ Gaskin is chief business officer of Green America and a special guest contributor to Rethinking Complexity. He is also a teacher and consultant on social innovation and shared value creation. Through his consulting practice, CoCreative Consulting, Russ helps companies and multi-stakeholder groups generate innovative solutions to chronic challenges. Russ holds a master’s degree in organization development from American University and the NTL Institute.