Harness the tensions of innovation

Imagine yin with no yang, night without day, hot without cold. Rather than being opposing forces, these natural dualities are complementary opposites, interacting as part of a greater dynamic system. Asia is far more comfortable than the West with dualities, yet managing such contradictions is one of the major challenges all business leaders face in seeking to boost creativity and innovation. “The single most important management skill to develop is a tolerance for ambiguity,” says innovation researcher, Tim Kastelle. “Why? Because we often must manage objectives that are contradictory.” Firms that are good at innovation can simultaneously generate new ideas while continuing to do what they’re best at, he says, “a hard balance to maintain”. The innovation journey is full of such tensions: analysis versus intuition, radical versus incremental, structure versus emergence. “These ideas are often presented as either/or choices,” Kastelle says. “However, they are really all things that occur along a spectrum – and the key to managing these innovative tensions is to find some balance.” Scholar and author of The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin, calls it integrative thinking. Exceptional leaders, he says, can “hold in their heads two opposing ideas at once. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to creatively resolve the tension between those two ideas by generating a new one that contains elements of the others but is superior to both.” It’s an innate capability, Martin argues, but few people choose to exercise it because we tend to avoid complexity and gravitate toward simplicity and certainty. “Our first impulse is usually to determine which of the two models is ‘right’ and, by the process of elimination, which is ‘wrong’,” he says. ”By forcing a choice between the two, we disengage the opposable mind before it can seek a creative resolution.”

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