Adaptive Tensions: Fuel for Innovation

Adaptive Tensions: Fuel for Innovation
April 21, 2010 Alice MacGillivray

In the twitter-based group that explores knowledge management topics (#KMers), John Bordeaux made some comments that piqued others’ interest. For example, he wrote that organizations pull for repeatability; people pull for creativity; and conflict can lead to novel approaches for both.

This statement speaks to the heart of my interests as a reflective practitioner. In scholarly circles I might say that I’m most interested in the intersections of complexity thinking, knowledge management and leadership. Since the mid-nineties I’ve not been able to think of any of those fields without the others. In lay terms, I might say that organizational structures serve good purposes AND constrain some types of knowledge-intensive work critical for growth or even survival. So many principles and norms in organizations are designed for predictable environments. This frustrates people who recognize the complexity around them, and have the energy to innovate and make a difference. These people find each other in coffee rooms, by water coolers, and increasingly through social media that can support networks and communities of practice. These connections can lead to anything from cynical camaraderie to deep learning, synergies and innovation.

Some KMers asked if I’d published anything related to the ideas in John’s comment, and I have, though I plan to expand this work in the future. For example, I identified 10 ways in which leaders work with the boundary between vertical and horizontal environments. One is to sustain adaptive tensions between the vertical and the horizontal. I illustrated this with a story of how an exercise was being planned to test and refine counter-terrorism capacity and capabilities. This quote from “Brenda” describes the process:

  • The first exercises very strongly focused on: “Here’s a spill, let’s clean it up” or “let’s find it first.” The second exercise was still along those lines, but they were a little more receptive to what if there were persons in that area of contamination. The third exercise was actually throwing in 50 rowdies who are potentially contaminated. How do you deal with them? So I’m anticipating that because of the way that I pushed for the exercise design, we’re pointing out gaps that will need to be addressed. And hopefully that will expand the areas of research interest for the next round of funding.

This quote is from p. 188 of Perceptions and uses of boundaries by respected leaders: A transdisciplinary inquiry by MacGillivray, Alice E., Ph.D., Fielding Graduate University, 2009, 256 pages; AAT 3399314 available through ProQuest database.

One of the points I was making was that networks of people that span organizational boundaries might be valued, respected and drawn upon by those in the vertical structures, or they might be excluded and marginalized to the detriment of learning and innovation. Even if they are respected, there are inherent tensions, which should not be ignored and which can contribute positively to innovation.

I posted my dissertation abstract below, and also have some papers that explore complexity-KM-innovation connections in the publications area of the blog:

Comments (2)

  1. I’d be interested to learn where you draw your sponsorship from, how your research substantiates ongoing interest – plus what practical potential innovation or application does it offer.

    Is it sociology, business, economics?

    check out my post on neoclassical economics @, its somewhere on there – either in reply to myself or on original posts.

    • Author
      amacgillivray 13 years ago

      Thank you for your meaty questions; I will try to respond.
      As for sponsorship, sometimes I am paid directly by clients to research and sometimes I take the initiative myself. I personally find it important to work with practical challenges, but to also step back and reflect and learn more through scholarship. Sometimes that feels a bit standing across a crack in the ice, but it can be exciting.
      I’m not sure if you are asking about my research substantiates my ongoing interest or the interest of clients or scholars or readers. I’ve tried to explain my interest above. I don’t know if you looked at my paper on leadership in a network of communities, but that is one example where clients made active use of the results, and a scholarly journal was also interested.
      You also asked (if I read your questions correctly) about the discipline(s) with which I work. I find most practical challenges span disciplines. I’ve been fortunate to attend universities that encourage interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary work. My PhD is in “Human and Organizational Systems” and my studies within that program focused on the intersections of leadership, complexity theory and knowledge management.
      I hope that’s helpful!

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