The Power of Creative Tension. Part II: Organizing for Collaborative Innovation

In the first of this three-part series on “Organizing for Collaborative Innovation,” we introduced Theatre Thinking as a powerful multiplier for the collaborative process. We discussed how Theatre Thinking and Design Thinking work together to help you develop your team as an Innovative Ensemble. We took a closer look at the first of three Theatre Thinking principles, The Casting Principle, and why an ensemble-driven ideology can pave the way for impactful innovation and meaningful results. The second principle in this series deals with the motivational power of creative tension and conflict.

Rivalry and struggle are a motivational vehicle for greatness. Rivalry, however, does not need to be fueled by anger or malice. The greatest rivalries are the result of circumstances that place two forces in passionate opposition. Popular media has long perpetuated a false narrative that there is always a clear distinction between good or evil, wrong or right. Real life is not akin to the story of a costumed crusader, taking on his/her nemesis du jour. In reality, it is not so cut and dry. You are more commonly faced with “good version A” and “good version B.” It is possible for a force, acting in conflict, to be good.

Part two, in this series, will focus on how to use this everyday healthy creative tension and conflict to propel your project team into greatness.


A healthy dose of creative tension can be an incredibly powerful stimulus for teams who are looking to foster creativity and striving to innovate collaboratively. Healthy competition and adversarial moments in any team can help to create inspired solutions, as long as they are well intentioned. Setting clear rules and boundaries help to set the conditions for innovation to occur, and conflict need not be derogatory. And when harnessed for the greater good can be an excellent motivator.

It might seem counterintuitive, but I am encouraging you to initiate conflict. Be an instigator, but be a strategic instigator. Your goal is to challenge people so that you can access their untapped potential. One effective unifying force you may call on is to have a common adversary — a challenging scene or a complex problem, for example — can be all you need to ignite a shared purpose. Rules and constraints can be a powerful catalyst to create this type of common-cause. Alternatively, placing certain individuals together, with different leadership styles and behavioral traits can have the same stimulating effect, but like any chemical formula: know your ingredients and mix with caution.

In theatre, the director seeks out a leading man and a leading lady who bring out the best in each other; they feed off one another’s energy and together take a scene to an explosive, dynamic level that might not be achieved if either was paired with a different actor. An agreeable disposition does not a fiery romance make. The “chemistry” is in the balance between chaos and bliss, the anticipation of explosiveness, and the impassioned advocacy of the individual cause as they fight to see desire fulfilled. What does that have to do with my project team you may ask? As a facilitator in your organization, you want your team members to energize one another too. You want them to be able to feed off each other’s passion, elevating your outputs to greater heights than you could have ever hoped to guide them toward otherwise. Remember, direct challenge and opposition is not negative so long as it does not become personal. Agree, as a team, to challenge the idea, not the person.

Conflict and creative tension will keep the process invigorated and promote discoveries, but the key to successfully applying this principle is achieving balance. Allowing for too much conflict can create barriers to productivity, and impassioned innovation can quickly turn to the just plain explosive. Understand your people, learn their needs, and know when to intervene or redirect.


Creative tension within teams, and among team members, can create a challenging dynamic that can be difficult to navigate. The tension that manifests itself between people is notably different than the tension that is born out of the creation of rules or established limitations. People tension is emotional tension. No two people can be expected to respond in the very same way to a set of challenging conditions. As a facilitator, you must take control of what you can. Make use some of those run-of-the-mill, non-tension-generating rules to create some guard rails for the tension-driven interaction. Creative tension and conflict exist within innovation teams to build people up and not to tear people down. It is up to you to rally your team behind this understanding. Those who refuse to play by the rules should be removed from play altogether. Create a psychologically safe space for unhindered collaboration where the best idea wins and where the ideas are always made bigger than the individual collaborator.

This can be tricky when you’re asking everyone to make an equal contribution, within the capacity of their respective role, and when by the very nature of the roles assigned, a select few individuals will be asked to do most if not all the heavy lifting. In theatre, the reality is that the “leading man (or woman)” carries a larger portion of the responsibility, and resultantly is given more time in the spotlight, garnering more attention and praise. High visibility, high praise. But the lead is nothing without the supporting cast. The design team may seemingly receive all the praise for the beautiful artifact that they created, but praise is in fact owed to the team that challenged any potential misstep along the way through research, strategic development, and delivery. The recognition is shared because you have built a team that understands that praise for the individual is equal to praise for the team.


When a show closes in the theatre, there are no guarantees for performers. Every single artist must audition for their next part. Look for ways to recast your team at the conclusion of every project, and you will maintain a competitive advantage long term. If there are opportunities to advance, people will look for ways to seize those opportunities. As an organizational leader, it is up to you to make sure that everyone on your team stays engaged and in the game. They need to know that there is always an opportunity for someone at the ensemble level to move up to the leading role–should they have the desire and work ethic to take on the role and responsibility.

If you instead always rely on certain people for certain roles, you limit the potential of other team members’ and stifle their passion (as mentioned in the Casting Principle in Part I). A team member with no visible path for advancement may start relinquishing work responsibilities or dialing back productivity because they believe they only have the latitude to reach a certain level of accomplishment.

Making your team aware that when one show (project) ends, auditions open up for the next, you can create a culture of healthy competition — the kind that motivates people to improve continually, strive for excellence and grasp new opportunities for personal growth.


A collaborator-focused approach to facilitating is always going to yield stronger results because your people are the resources that you can know, trust, and truly count on — but only if you fully invest in them. As a leader, you must own that part of your role to make the best use of your human capital. Use this collaboration principle to help you tap into the resources you have on hand by challenging them, showing them how to challenge each other, and pushing them to achieve greater things together than they ever would have dreamed of individually.

Keep reading more on the power of Theatre Thinking and for our third collaborative innovation principal—one designed to keep you and your team humble and thankful for the work, the partnership and the opportunity to create.

Read Part I of this Powerful Blog Series:  “Organizing for Collaborative Innovation: The Casting Principle.”

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