How do you handle your creative tension? Uncomfortable, isn’t it? The uncertainty, the crises of confidence, the dread of failure.
In creative tension, we’re not just grappling with “How will I solve this?” but, more likely, a sense of “Am I capable of solving it?” and even “Is this problem even the right problem?”
And at the same time, you know that you can’t know the answer at the moment, and that’s the point. Creative tension is all about uncertainty. Somehow, that uncertainty is part of the creative process.
Nick Udall, in his book Riding The Creative Rollercoaster, talks about the role of creative leaders being to hold the tension. The leader’s ability to hold the space between the highs of knowing, and the lows of not-knowing, is key.
“Too often leaders collapse the creative rollercoaster because they struggle to not-know, and worry about being seen to not-know,” he says.
I think this applies just as much to individuals as to teams and organisations.
Not-knowing isn’t a comfortable place for most people – including me. I put a high value on the ability to handle uncertainty and ambiguity, both for myself and others. Back in my corporate job it was one of the first things I looked for in any new hire. In coaching, I love holding the space for my clients to explore the edges of their not-knowing, and to experience the process of exploration, discovery and innovation.
But when I’m up to my neck in creative tension personally, as I am right now, I hate it! I get headaches, I wake up at four in the morning, I get antsy and I snap at my husband.
Just knowing that not-knowing is important, and that one should hold the tension, isn’t quite enough when it’s me that’s involved..
So I do things that collapse the tension: I eat chocolate, have a glass of wine or, worse still, I seize on the first halfway-decent idea that might solve the problem, and declare it the answer to everything. (It’s worse because it tends to create suboptimal products – though it’s probably better for my health than the other two!)
A healthier option might be to dive back into doing more research. But the truth is, this still collapses the tension: it’s a classic procrastination technique.
What I need to do, somehow, is to healthily manage and maintain the creative tension until the real breakthrough comes. Here are three ways to do that:
1. Take a break! The creative process doesn’t have to be linear. Udall quotes Jacobs Getzels’ model of creativity as a linear process, moving from saturation, through incubation (the not-knowing “down”) to illumination. But Udall suggests an amendment – for him, this is less of a linear process, and more of an iterative dance between the knowing and not-knowing. That feels like a helpful metaphor: it means I can briefly escape the tension without it being the end of the project. In writing this blog post, I’m taking a break from the creative work I’m supposed to be doing. A walk will follow. Chances are, that will relax the parts of my mind which have been wrestling with the problem and make them more likely to come up with better answers.
2. Rearrange what you know you know. It often works well to literally get the research information and spread it out around you on pieces of paper or on post-it notes. Use a nice big piece of floor, or a blank wall. Get it off the computer! Your relationship to the data will change, and new relationships between the elements will emerge. (You could try a few Clean Space questions for good measure.)
3. Use metaphors for unsticking. Lots of creative techniques invite you to come up with a new metaphor: “If this company were an animal…” etc. But the data, and your thoughts about it, are already awash with metaphors – and they’re your own metaphors, which means they’re full of deeper meanings and potential for new connections. Consider:
- This problem is like… what? What kind of…?
- What the potential customer wants/needs is like… what?
- What metaphors have you already used to consider the problem? Is there anything else about that?
- When this problem is solved in the way you’d like, that will be like… what?
How do you handle creative tension? Please comment below!