How to Embrace Tensions and Organizational Paradox to Drive a Culture Towards Innovation and Creativity

It is not just about open innovation but openness to innovation

It is not just about open innovation but openness to innovation

— Curly and Salmelin¹

It was in the middle of a discussion with a friend that he said, “if only you could manage to put innovation and creativity in a box, you could ship it for lots of money to every organization out there.” Such a fantastic idea, but aren’t there already some approaches to this like the Adobe Kickbox, Design (thinking) kits? In addition to that, there are a whole lot of major consultancy firms who have innovation boxes in place. But how practical is it to frame creativity and innovation in a box, when openness is more about our habitual aspirations and personal mindset than it is about tools, procedures and canvases?

If that holds true, what kind of personal mindset is profitable for innovation and culture then? How can organizations profit from such mindsets and how can they increase their creative and innovative capabilities? What kind of culture will attract such mindsets and foster creative and innovative habits?

Over 10 years ago, the need for creative and innovative thinking emerged in the wider range of businesses and industries. Today, you can hardly overlook the fact that organizations are investing a lot of effort and resources in order to increase their creative and innovation resources. You can empirically measure this by the initiatives corporations communicate. Initiatives such as Working Out Loud, Design Thinking and lots of other programs. You can also look at the development of internal innovation positions and hires that are being published. Whether it is an innovation manager or a design thinking head, in almost every business area from insurance and banking to NPOs, talent is indeed needed.

At the same time you can measure an increase in offers, programs and “products” in the area of creative and innovation management. Our thesis is that:

  • most organizations still take a short cut due to a high pressure for qualitative innovation.

The enemy of art is the absence of limitations

— Orson Wells²

Creativity has always dealt with limited options and resources. Innovative and creative people experience a high output of creativity and innovative ideas when there is a maximum of restriction. At the same time, research shows that tension will foster ideation in relation to paradox mindset. If we are dealing with limited human innovation capital in the future, what other roads can then be taken to foster innovation and creativity capabilities?

Taking the Alternate Route

In western cultures, if you bring up the question “who can solve the problem” in a classroom or during a management meeting, , extroverts are most likely (most times sitting in the front row) to raise their hands. There are several schools and educational approaches working towards a new model in which listening and thoughtfulness is appreciated and rewarded.

This approach is still largely underestimated in business contexts where projects are hurried through and time is the most lacking resource. What if the potential for cultural change that we so seek, led by innovation and creativity, lies already within the organization? What if the concept of engaging with introverts can help us deal with people with paradox mindset capabilities better?

Although only a few books and materials are readily available on the subject of hidden potential, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say there is considerably not enough programs that a) value people in the background and b) focus on human assets, that are already available. In her TED talk presentation titled, “The Power of Introverts”, Susan Cain calls for a culture of balance between extroversion and introversion. In our workplaces, she says, we now work in open plan offices without walls where we are subject to the constant noise and gaze of our coworkers. If you don’t follow these findings, you may overlook talents like Steve Wozniak, Rosa Parks and many more who had a deep impact at their time.

Unfortunately for those who like to work in silence and in a state of deep work, they are often passed over for ideation processes (because they take their time to internally analyse things before they sign up for a call). Leadership therefore needs to do more work in finding the right role for the right personality and skill set. There are indeed job titles that need more focus, tranquility and solitude than others. A working space with people trying to interact and exchange ideas may not be suitable for such people. Recent research shows that in dealing with paradox mindset, two dimensions have to be considered: the cognitive and the emotional world of people with paradox mindset capabilities.

Therefore we assume that you will need space for people with paradox mindset capabilities outside the traditional environment for reflection, guidance (coaches, tutors), for building confidence, and for practical as well as academic-related training. Doing this can enable these people to develop expertise on how to deal with tensions and complexities, in order to create strategies that help in adapting to different roles. If this approach is successful, chances are high that these people can become multipliers within their organization and impact others around them with their approach towards tensions and paradox (“cultural ambassadors”).

So there is an apparent need to approach this kind of talent lying in the shadows of organizations. For organizations, a leadership and HR-approach is required to access this potential for unusual perspectives and creative voices. Labels such as introverted, nerdy, shy, geek, crackpot, crazy, autistic, eccentric and many more are used as derogatory epithets for withdrawn people, raising a lot of work-ethical questions at the same time..

To achieve this, an attitude and communication is required which expresses the authentic willingness to listen to these voices. For this, organizations firstly need to:

  1. understand the mindset of specifically talented people for paradox environments

What Value in Return?

The problem is not the problem; the problem is the way we think about the problem

— Paul Watzlawick⁵

In entrepreneurship, the paradox mindset is an asset that allows for the reconsideration and reevaluation of the problem. One major way is to lay aside the idea generation and focus rather on the people, especially those who usually do not have much to say. Much of our world has been revolutionized by the neglected people whose innovation and creativity are birthed out of a paradoxical system. Many of the world’s leaders, past and present, have come out to confirm their introverted nature and many visionaries whose visions weren’t understood became the shakers and movers of this world.

We often look to environments that encourage idea generation and exchange. These environments, however, are places that often exacerbate the situation. There is an excessive attention given to the why’s which then leads back to the problem. The who’s of the matter are much a bigger asset than the why’s. This is why we created sh|ft, a platform that gives prominence to the voice of eccentric people whose innovation and creativity are paradoxical to most existing structures.

The Organizational Challenge

A paradox mindset is pivotal to the growth of most businesses. Unbeknownst to most, organizations themselves are full of paradoxes. Most organizations are facing today three core narratives in their strategies, which are highly paradoxical towards each other. This is mostly a) maintaining the existing business model (as there is still a major revenue coming from) b) launching new (often digital) products to react to the market shift and disruptive movements and c) developing mid- and long-term developments for new products for a period of time when products of a) will no longer be profitable.

You can frame them in three waves or three horizons, which on a green field in an ideal environment offers already a perspective on how to deal with these narratives and strategic streams:

As most existing organizations do not have such an ideal playground, they tend to outsource b) or c) or acquire b) and c). Still, on a leadership level, you are dealing with completely different energies (consolidation vs. exploration), leadership styles and strategic narratives. This also raises the question on how to communicate this organizational development to stakeholders, employees and towards the market. How can you ensure that employees get a clear understanding of the situation, the challenges and their part towards the succession of the strategy?

This is another field where a deeper understanding of paradox mindset capabilities can help to address these tensions and twists. Authenticity can play a major role here: not denying the situation and again developing a clear strategic agenda and communication.

In their efforts to achieve a particular goal, some organizations use diversity as a means to inclusion. In other instances, we have seen a few organizations try to create a business structure that enhances freedom at work. Organizations consequently have to develop, recognize and promote paradox mindset capabilities

Therefore, there needs to be a new narrative (and space) that creates and embeds a culture of open mindedness toward the eccentric people at workplaces. Leadership has to develop abilities and mindful approaches to listen to and align its goals with a paradox mindset. It is a given that our world embraces the outspoken, extroverted personality more, but a paradox mindset that juxtaposes the crazy and the sane, the extrovert and the introvert, the problem and the solution, the why and the who is what we should all be clamouring for.

Exploring the differences in human personalities is a mindset that needs not only be imbibed, but also be incorporated within corporate mindset models. Since mindsets express the values an organization stands for and is built on, it is practically impossible to express something that does not reside within the four walls of a company. When a paradox mindset becomes part and parcel of an organization, it is consistently and purposefully expressed, which in turn, helps employees to easily interpret the culture of the organization.

The goal, in conclusion, should be to traverse the whole spectrum in admission that, while we are creating spaces for the interaction and exchange of ideas in our workplaces, we should also give credence to the ones who require focus and solitude to create and innovate. Approaching it with a mindset that considers an atypical perspective and finally making it an attitude that influences the company’s culture and is boldly reflected in the policies it composes.

Getting practical

Most great ideas spring from solitude

— Susan Cain

Organizations with space for “the crazy ones” without a mono-rational (in terms of economy etc.) agenda (such as product companies, creative agencies who are bound to market development) are hard to find. This is why we developed programs such as “sh|ft” in Germany and Portugal. These accelerators are platforms and initiatives, where “the crazy ones” can find community, space for exploration and publication for our findings and outcomes. Virtually and in reality, design of rooms need to consider the requirement for solitude and limitations for fostering creativity and tangible tensions as the advocate for innovation to ensure practical outcomes.

If only leadership will listen more to the ‘crazy’ ones and if they don’t, programs such as sh|ft does.

This article has been originally published by Motoki on the sh|ft blog.
Adapted by Klaus Motoki Tonn and Kayero Sanda for Lumen Partners.


[1] M. Curley, B. Salmelin, Openness to Innovation and Innovation Culture in Open Innovation 2.0, Innovation, Technology, and Knowledge Management, Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2018.

[2] This quote has been mostly referred to Orson Wells.

[3] „Paradox theory deepens understandings of the varied nature, dynamics and outcomes of organizational tensions“, Microfoundations of Organizational Paradox: The Problem is How We Think About the Problem.

[4] Communicative, ethical and strategic framework to manage corporate culture, Mindset als Form der Implementierung von CSR in das Business Model, Klaus Motoki Tonn, Manaén Yosef Stürenberg Herrera.

[5] Watzlawick, Weakland & Fisch, 1974.

[6] „As research suggests, managing conflict is not just a mental exercise, but depends on managing emotions as well.”

Since 2010 Lumen is a collective of creative minds and strategists, pushing organisations towards a new vision of economy, #newwork and #socialresponsibility

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store