Want Creativity? Learn to Use Tension and Chaos

How tension and chaos can enable creative collaborations

Creativity is at the root of innovation. So, it is hardly surprising that almost everybody — profit and non-profit organizations, universities, government entities, cities, countries — wants to know how to best foster creativity.

How can we distill the recipe for explosions of creative output? History serves as a guide and gives us an idea of group elements and dynamics that leaders should cultivate.

Learning from the past: examples of creative organizations

Those who have read my book The Nexus are familiar with the examples I use — both historical and modern — of organizations that cultivated creativity.

The Lunar Society, the archetypal society of the Enlightenment that brought thinkers and doers for the first time; the Bauhaus, the short-lived German art school which created a disproportionate and remarkably lasting influence as well as its US successor, Black Mountain College, the unconventional organization in North Carolina which attracted and generated remarkable artistic talent.

On the side of corporations and government, we can look to Bell Labs, where freedom and resources drove an unparalleled output of scientific and technological innovations, and the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which blended two dissimilar cultures — military and academia — to cultivate a remarkable output of working innovations.

These examples all involve the design of creative collaborations. But with the possible exception of the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, they are completely different from each other.

Can we identify commonalities?

Those in the business world might attribute these organizations’ success to leadership or to a clear roadmap that had been designed to spur innovation.

While it’s true that the Bauhaus had some towering figures as leaders and a clear philosophical viewpoint, for the most part, these organizations were successful because of their lack of visible top-down management.

Black Mountain College had little in the way of central guiding authority and almost no visible organizational structure. Bell Labs produced an unparalleled output of scientific and technological innovations with hands-off management as the strategy. The Office of Scientific Research and Development bridged two worlds — the military world and the science and engineering world — that operated with completely different value systems. And again, it did so with light top-down management.

In fact, all these organizations are examples of a phenomenon called emergence.

What is emergence? And why is it important?

Emergence is when elements — in this case, people — produce outputs or functions that could not have been anticipated by the elements themselves. That is the technical definition of the word, as defined by complex systems theory. For example, birds organize in flows, ants form well-defined paths from sources of food, and artsy and foodie neighborhoods emerge in cities. Neurons interact with each other to form brains. Together they create a function that is not predictable from the elements themselves.

Why is this important? Emergence does not just happen by accident and can in fact be designed. In the context of organizations and creative outputs, one could say that the role of the leader is to create conditions for successful emergence.

Tension and chaos: Identifying the roots of creativity

How can leaders encourage their organizations to have this emergence of creativity? There is no specific formula, but there are components that need to be managed for creative output to emerge.

The first is tension, since tension is at the heart of creativity. “Creativity emerges from a conflict of ideas,” Donatella Versace said, and she was precisely right. The second is chaos. No good idea emerges fully formed. They materialize from massless and formless chaos. “Chaos is a friend of mine,” Bob Dylan aptly said.

In the case of partnerships and teams, tension and chaos might at first seem like negative elements you would like to avoid. Certainly, teams must first and foremost include different kinds of talents that complement each other. Just how these talents complement each other might not always work as planned, though, and this may create tension.

In fact, adding tension and chaos to the mix can lead to fruitful results.

Most definitely, tension is easier to manage in a team of two — a minimal team — than in teams of many. Also, chaos emerging from a team of two does not require a team leader to manage and organize ideas. I will therefore deviate from the most travelled territory of teams and make a few observations about minimal size teams, teams of two. Though technically not emergence, something seemingly magical can happen when two people work together immersed within the right balance of tension and chaos.

Chaos and tension in partnerships

Perhaps the most famous example is John Lennon and Paul McCartney, whose partnership produced some of the most acclaimed pop music of the 20th century. Their creative collaboration relied on the tension between McCartney’s optimism and Lennon’s discord and was certainly fueled by the chaos of new ideas that led to their unique and distinctive take on pop music.

Another famous example is the partnership between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, co-founders of Apple. Their talents were complementary — Wozniak designed the original technology, while Jobs provided the business and marketing vision — but they famously clashed due to their disparate personalities and approaches.

Perhaps slightly less known is the collaboration of George Balanchine, one of the most influential ballet choreographers of the 20th century, and Igor Stravinsky, an avant-garde composer whose work famously caused a near-riot among concertgoers. Their ballet collaborations, including Agon and Apollo, fused Stravinsky’s riotous and unpredictable scores with Balanchine’s radical, modernist choreography. Their relationship, too, was famously complex and emotionally charged.

Chaos and tension require a third element

But left unchecked, chaos and tension can lead to dangerous, unstable results. For innovation, they must be combined with another essential ingredient: trust.

And in fact, trust is essential to some of the longest lasting creative partnerships. Consider Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who have worked seamlessly together in fashion for over 30 years. Gabbana has said that though tension fueled their relationship before, “He knows about me, everything. And I know everything about him… We don’t fight about anything. I have a respect for him.”

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein set the model for Broadway composing duos from the 1940s to the ‘60s. They showed tremendous mutual respect and smooth teamwork creating hit musicals like Oklahoma! and South Pacific. Rodgers said their relationship was like a marriage, built on strong convictions and the ability to work together in such close harmony that “the song they create is accepted as a spontaneous emotional expression.”

There are few more individualist activities than painting and trust is not a quality often associated with art. But artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the co-creators of cubism, provide a remarkable example of intellectual collaboration and trust. They did not share a studio but one could be faulted for believing that they had. They did not work on each other’s paintings either, though they visited each other’s studios in the evening. It takes experts to distinguish their paintings apart during the seven years of their collaboration. “We were like two mountain climbers roped together,” Braque said.

Distilling a collaboration into axioms

Mathematics is another lonely endeavor, possibly even more solitary than painting. But the partnership between the English mathematicians G.H. Hardy and John Littlewood is the glaring exception to the rule. Hardy, the man who discovered Ramanujan — “The Man who Knew Infinity” — was the most famous of the two. But they were well matched and complemented their individual styles. So seamless was their collaboration that the mathematician Harald Bohr (brother of the famous Niels Bohr) said “There are only three great mathematicians in England, Hardy, Littlewood, and Hardy-Littlewood.”

Mary Cartwright, who was supervised by G.H. Hardy in her PhD work and subsequently collaborated with Littlewood and went on to become the first woman mathematician to be elected to the Royal Society distilled, along with Harald Bohr’s observations, the collaboration between and Hardy and Littlewood into a handful of pity axioms. But the entire root of the axioms can be summarized by the word trust.

Extending the lessons

All of the above pertains to pairs. But I think we can distill a few useful lessons for individuals and teams, including some lessons for those who lead teams.

The first lesson is a must: cultivate trust. This is sometimes mingled with being authentic. Trust is essential in managing the chaos and tension that are inevitable in creative teams.

The second lesson is tolerate tension. Tension is healthy. Tension sparks new ideas from conflicting viewpoints. Do not take sides. Especially early on. When you tolerate tension, you can embrace the beauty and excitement of ideas that oppose each other.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Leonard Bernstein echoes this sentiment as well: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.”

The ability to hold opposing ideas simultaneously is essential to creativity. Ideas may come from different domains, with different metrics, different historical references, and different criteria for success.

The key to successful collaboration is to welcome and embrace conflict. By holding the tension, we generate a space of collaboration, learning, and real innovation — creating something that has never been seen or done before.

The third lesson is tolerate chaos. Ideas do not appear magically, fully formed. Chaos allows novel concepts to emerge without preconceptions.

Together, these lessons help you respect and prepare for emergence. But more than that, they can help you engineer emergence and make it a priority for yourself and your team. A successful organization will create the right conditions for emergence by allowing freedom, while negotiating balance with necessary control.

This runs profoundly at odds with contemporary command and control leadership in business, and it might feel unintuitive for many leaders. Negotiating the balance between freedom and control may be the most daunting challenge of future leadership. But we need to design the liberty (including the liberty of failure) to provide a fertile condition for emergence to flourish.

Discover the world of nexus thinking

In this provocative and visually striking book, Julio Mario Ottino and Bruce Mau offer a guide for navigating the intersections of art, technology, and science.