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Tension leads to innovation

Individuals and organizations are typically conditioned to tamp down tension and focus on consensus, but Tamara Christensen, faculty associate at ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, explains maximizing tension is actually the key to innovation

Published: Jun 18, 2019 12:50:36 PM IST
Updated: Jun 18, 2019 01:39:32 PM IST

Tension leads to innovationImage: Shutterstock

We are all transformation designers.”

If that’s news to you, then listen as Tamara Christensen, faculty associate at ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, explains: “Anyone can transform an existing situation into a preferred one. We just need to know how to get there. For most teams and organizations, the true challenge is how to get to the preferred situation together.”

Christensen aims to demystify that process with her course, Transform Tension into Collaboration. In it, she takes a practical approach that is “low on lecture, high on experience,” she says.

“Others who teach about collaboration may have more of an academic perspective, but I’m less interested in being an authority and more passionate about helping people have an experience – providing them with specific tools, tactics and techniques and practice with methods that help them develop confidence,” she says. “People will leave the course with new understanding and ideas and thinking, ‘Here are the things I can do or try right away.’”

Christensen built her expertise in design thinking and collaborative problem-solving as a coach and researcher for Fortune 500 clients in diverse industries including 3M, Honeywell, Coca-Cola, the New York Times and Logitech. “I’ve been experiencing and studying tension and collaboration for decades, looking at cognitive differences and working with cross-functional teams,” she says.

Maximizing tension is the key
Individuals and organizations are typically conditioned to tamp down tension and focus on consensus, but Christensen says maximizing tension is actually the key to innovation.

“I don’t use the word ‘consensus’ because it implies that at some point someone will have to acquiesce – and that’s not consensus. I think alignment is a better word for what we hope to achieve,” she says. “There’s this idea of normalizing or same-izing in organizations. But the reality is that when people are free to do the best work of their lives, the way they want to do it, that’s what really works.”

Christensen says it’s “not normal or natural” when the pendulum swings way too far toward collaboration, a trend that is creating backlash in many workplaces.

“We need to maximize our differences in an organization and get the most out of them,” she says. “Coders and developers may want to go into their pit and code. Other folks may want to be in an open office and talk through things. So how and when do we collaborate just enough? Let’s think strategically about the best times to get people together, who should be there, and how we learn to trust each other when we are off on our own working toward that common goal.”

On a fundamental level, Christensen says, innovation requires the overlap of three key things:

  • Technological feasibility (Can we make it?)
  • Business viability (Is it a worthy endeavor for our business?)
  • Desirability (Do people want it?)
  • “It’s three overlapping circles of a Venn diagram,” she says, “and that means innovation requires different types of expertise to hit the sweet spot where all three overlap. It takes cross-functional collaboration to get people who are really good in three different areas.”

‘Nitty-gritty experience’
“The allure of innovation is that it’s attractive and sexy,” Christensen says. “It tends to feel like this fun, shiny, hip endeavor to have innovative products or services or innovative approaches to internal processes like employee engagement or talent acquisition. But in reality it’s really, really hard, because it requires people who fundamentally think and do things differently to work together. It looks so cool in magazines, but then you try it and wonder, ‘Why is this so complicated?’ It creates a lot of tension.”

Christensen’s course tackles that tension head-on. “If you want to innovate, you’re going to have to collaborate. You’ll encounter things that create tension, which is not a bad thing,” she says. “And the more tension you have, it likely means the more experts you have who are pulling in different, valuable directions.”

Instead of high-level theory, Christensen’s course will focus on the experiential. “We’re really going to focus on the people side of innovation versus the industry side or fancy products and services. Imagine you in your office or in a meeting with your team, trying to figure out a challenge, and it’s not working because you all have different ideas of what to do and how to do it. This course is more of a roll-up-your-sleeves, nitty-gritty experience. We’ll face tension and learn to embrace it. Yes, innovation can hurt, but it doesn’t have to.

“In my consulting practice, we are constantly working with clients to assess challenges and frame problems in new ways. Regardless of what you call it, the core problem facing most of them is collaboration – how and when to do it well,” she says. “Most organizations have great people, great teams and expertise. So how do we put all these competing forces together and create a culture that allows them to do their best work?

“As the future workforce develops even more expertise and diversity, collaboration remains one of our biggest challenges and opportunities to innovate.”

[This article has been reproduced with permission from Knowledge Network, the online thought leadership platform for Thunderbird School of Global Management https://thunderbird.asu.edu/knowledge-network/]

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