Understanding & Leveraging the Creative Tensions of Innovation & Creativity

I’ll come clean. Although I work today as an executive coach and organizational consultant, was formerly on the faculty of the USAWC and taught at the Wharton School, I earned my first degree in music. Many of my early formative experiences were in the creative arts – playing the piano and percussion instruments, painting, sculpting and dancing. I owned a gallery of art representing contemporary visual art in Santa Fe for many years, representing the work of important artists of the US Southwest and Mexico before I earned a Doctorate in Business Administration. What does this say about me, my orientation and my work today? Perhaps that I honor the importance of creativity to production and success (and, frankly, to life in general) and that I am keenly aware of both the strengths and potential pitfalls for those who value and practice creative processes, whether they are artists or exploring and pushing the boundaries of discovery in business, science or another discipline.

While studying in college, I vividly remember encountering a quote attributed to Picasso by Francoise Gilot in her account of life with Picasso. Its impact caused me to stop in my tracks to consider some assumptions I was making about my own process. I don’t have the exact quote but I remember the essence of it – that degrees of freedom are limited once you start to create. That in order to create, you must make a structure, accept some limitations, yet within the boundaries you establish, one’s creativity is able to flourish. This was an important discovery for me as a college student during a time when the zeitgeist venerated some ideal of unbridled freedom.

I still see the wisdom of this and observe this creative tension played out with my clients. This dynamic that Picasso described is present in all creative activity. When I coach leaders and teams working in innovation, we explore together these tensions or paradoxes so critical to successful creative projects and ventures. Heightened awareness of these tensions can lead to better decision-making and higher levels of accountability, while contributing to the level of successful innovation. For example, we discuss what are critical elements of structure for a project that defines the boundaries within which team members can play, can create, can unleash their creativity to advance toward a process or product that contributes to the venture. How do we impose a discipline on experimentation? As a leader, how does one both hold others accountable while exercising enough tolerance of differences and individual needs to inspire and motivate.

Thus, I was delighted to discover the article, The Hard Truth about Innovation’ in the recent issue of the Harvard Business Review (Jan-Feb), an abbreviated version of which I share with you below. This article highlights five key paradoxes of innovation, some countering blind-spots or unexamined preferences or notions currently fashionable in the ‘big idea’ world of management. The assertions of this article resonated with my experience with creative ventures and teams and supported the notion important in my work with clients, that an awareness of these tensions and learning to leverage them is critical to creating a culture that supports innovation and fosters long-term success.

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