Does this sound familiar? A group of employees is assembled to solve a complex problem, but instead of finding a swift solution, the group’s dynamics create entirely new problems.

It’s a common scenario, says Tamara Christensen, faculty associate at ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, and it’s one she sees firsthand as a consultant and coach for Fortune 500 companies. A classic example of that creative tension, she says, would be the “left brain” vs. “right brain” combinations found in industries such as software or aerospace engineering.

"Imagine the creative person coming up with a radical new vision. The reality is, that person isn’t typically capable of bringing that idea to life all by themselves. They need someone technical to figure out how to make it work,” she says. “The creatives and the technical folks have different ways of working and different priorities.”

Christensen will explore that dynamic in her one-day experiential program, Transform Tension into Collaboration, on Oct. 25 on the ASU main campus in Tempe. Participants will learn the six dimensions of tension that pose obstacles for organizations and teams and how to transform them into creative, collaborative opportunities.

‘It’s about stretching yourself’

Christensen says creative tension is “very much about energy,” and we ought to recognize and appreciate those who operate differently than us. “And thank goodness they do,” she says, “because oftentimes they love doing something you don’t want to do – and they’re great at it. Don’t waste time being annoyed that someone is more focused on the details when you could be appreciating the fact that because they’re tracking the progress and logistics, you don’t have to do it,” she says with a laugh.

“It’s about stretching yourself to see what you haven’t seen before.” – Click to tweet

Beyond the left brain vs. right brain example, tension is inherent in other divides such as organizational hierarchies. “The experience of innovation is very different across different levels,” Christensen says. “Business-as-usual is very hierarchal, so when you try to be innovative it can cause frustration. The leadership’s perspective on innovation may be a certain way, very strategically motivated, but as you move lower in the organization, that perspective can shift to fundamentally different ways of thinking and working for the frontline personnel who are responsible for the tactical implementation.

“I often see a mandate, a new initiative or metrics being handed down from above,” she says. “And at the top they see it as innovation, but down at the team level it feels threatening.”

The experience of trying to collaborate and innovate is not as easy as it looks or sounds on the surface.

Christensen says that while some people are more inclined than others to avoid or eliminate tension, the six dimensions of tension she teaches are generally found across the board regardless of gender, cultural or hierarchal differences.

“Looking at tensions, there’s not a right or wrong side. It's not about better or worse,” she says. “It’s about, for example, how one group may be relying on quantitative data but ignoring experiential elements or vice versa. It’s about stretching yourself to see what you haven’t seen before.”

Authentic and experiential

To reach those breakthroughs, Christensen’s course offers an experiential workshop. “In general, adult learners and professionals thrive with a hands-on approach. They want to practice new concepts so they can understand how to use something right away. The learning is more authentic to them when it’s experiential.

“I’m a big believer in people learning that way, with plenty of activities, stories and examples, self-diagnostics and discussion. It’s when we see those ‘Aha!’ moments where the light bulb goes on,” she says. “These experiences help people feel what it’s like to work with someone different, someone they don’t know very well. That happens a lot in real life.”

“Being an empathetic, effective leader or team member begins with deep listening.” – Click to tweet

Christensen tries to create experiences in her course where participants have a chance to practice, observe and listen. “After each activity we have a thoughtful, strategic conversation about what just happened. What’s most important is that attendees leave the course with skills they can start using right away.”

One of those key skills is the ability to diagnose the sources of tension and find opportunities in them. Another is a sharpened ability to listen. “Meaningful conversations don’t happen at work as often as we need them to,” she says. “So the workshop has a particular activity that helps people realize how important the act of listening is and that we don’t listen as well as we think we do. You can call that skill ‘listening,’ but it’s really about how to be an empathetic, effective leader or team member. It helps us understand each other.”

Ultimately, Christensen hopes participants leave with “a greater appreciation for the potential inherent in things they thought were challenges. It’s about developing the ability to reframe a negative situation into an opportunity.”

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