The benefits of "healthy tension"

May 23, 2014

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Design Strategy Conference in Chicago (hosted by the IIT Institute of Design). The conference brought together presenters and attendees from various industries, academia, and non-profits from all over the world. It was an information-rich two-day conference that really helped reinforce all of the work that we do at Design Concepts to help our clients solve “wicked problems” through design. In addition to the great content I really enjoyed meeting people from a variety of roles and learning about what brought them to the conference and the problems they face.

Roger Martin’s talk really struck a chord with me — probably because I had just come off of an all-company meeting where we learned about our work styles through a DiSC assessment workshop with Darcy Luoma. I won’t get into all the details of the workshop, but for me, especially because I’m newer to Design Concepts, it was a great way to build awareness for my work style and preferences as well as for the styles and preferences of my colleagues. And, more importantly, the workshop helped me to see the diversity in our styles, how we complement each other, and how our differences can sometimes lead to healthy tension.

So this is where Martin’s talk really hit home. If you’ve read his book “The Design of Business,” you already have a good sense of his passion for integrating design thinking into business to fuel innovation. His talk was related to that idea and built upon his talk at the 2006 Design Strategy Conference talk. At that conference, he introduced the idea that business types (on the left of a linear spectrum) are more interested in Analytical Thinking or Reliability and designers (on the right of a linear spectrum) are more interested in Intuitive Thinking or Validity — and that creates tensions or even hostile environments.

The beauty of that tension, however, is that when the two sides collide (imagine two bell curves overlapping) it has the potential to create innovation. But there needs to be an opportunity for that collision to happen. We need to welcome it and seek out both sides of the spectrum. Unfortunately, a lot of organizations lean too much to one side of the spectrum (usually the business/Reliability side) and so they’re stuck.

The beauty of tension is that when two sides collide it has the potential to create innovation.

In the talk I saw, Martin introduced some additional frameworks to help illustrate other attributes of business thinkers and the design thinkers and what the opportunity area in the middle (that tension) could be. They were (from left to right and in the middle):

  • Data driven vs. judgment oriented to Omnivorous
  • Manipulation of quantities vs. appreciation of qualities to comprehensive consideration
  • Objective vs. interpretive testable (prototyping)
  • Incremental vs. discontinuous to syncopated
  • Planning vs. strategy to strategic management
  • What is true/what might be true to what would have to be true?

The attributes and tensions he described reminded me of the attributes I had just learned about in the DiSC workshop. It helped to reinforce that Design Concepts is a place that is well poised to help our clients benefit from our different styles – and our “tensions” as well!

ITT Institute of Design 

Roger Martin


Darcy Luoma

2006 Design Strategy Talk