What is Innovative Tension?
August 10, 2012 in Startup
This is a guest post written by Ash Ayyaswamy (@ayyaswa) with contributions by Kevin Browne (@hamiltonkb). This blog post evolved out of a conversation about Startups in the Hamilton area between Ash and Kevin on Saturday, August 4, 2012.
What does a Startup need to succeed? Funding? A Great Team? Customers? All of these elements are important and we spend a lot of time and energy chasing funding, putting together a great team and acquiring customers and there has been a lot written about each of those topics, moreover you probably know most of it. But humor me for a second and let’s take a look at what happens after you put a great team together, get some funding and get going, I postulate that the success of your startup will depend on how your startup deals with “Innovative Tension”.
So what is Innovative Tension? If you go dust off that Physics book and look up the definition of tension it probably says that “tension is the pulling force exerted on an object” with that in mind you can extrapolate and define innovative tension as the pulling forces exerted on your startup. As you probably know force is a vector, that means innovative tension is a vector made up of many little forces that add up to one force pulling your startup, hopefully in the direction that you want it to move forward in.
The figure above shows you some of the forces that impact a startup and create innovative tension.
If youâ€™ve ever seen an investor presentation youâ€™ve probably seen the â€śhockey stickâ€ť of revenue or growth for an innovative startup, there is a period of low growth and then a sudden exponential jump â€“ when they cross the chasm. If you zoom into the low growth period, it wonâ€™t be linear there will be pivots, there will be changes to the product, teams will be disbanded and the markets will change but we gloss over all of that for the exponential growth at the end. In that so-called â€ślow growthâ€ť period is where innovative tension comes into play where innovation actually happens.
Innovation isnâ€™t about building more products or selling more products; itâ€™s about discovering a better process to build the products or finding a better way to sell more products. Innovation isnâ€™t just about doing the same thing as before only better; itâ€™s about doing something better by doing something disruptive and different.
An innovative startup tries to solve a problem with a new and different solution. The startupâ€™s overall direction will be towards the creation of a profitable solution to the problem. The process of generating that solution and moving in the desired direction is where Innovative Tension comes into play. For example a startup has to be hungry and foolish enough to attempt to tackle a problem by creating a new solution, yet confident enough that a solution can be found and knowledgeable enough to get there. Itâ€™s a bit like a team of mountain climbers trying to reach the peak, it requires enough risk-taking ambition to make the attempt but also the know how to overcome the unknown obstacles that will be encountered along the way.
The differing backgrounds and viewpoints of team members is one of the most important sources of Innovative Tension. An engineer focused on creating a product with a rich feature-set and well architected codebase may conflict with a designer focused on a simple to use product and a business founder eager to ship a minimum viable product before the competition does first. These differing viewpoints are all attempting to push the startup in a positive direction, but they create Innovative Tension that must be resolved in a pragmatic way that maximizes progress towards the startupâ€™s overall direction. Innovative Tension often involves tension between team member egos. Leaders and team members with too much ego, who are unwilling to compromise enough or give up enough control, can be as ineffective as those with too little ego who are unwilling to press ahead with imperfect but pragmatic solutions to areas of tension.
All these situations involve tension between trade-offs, which is true of any business, whether itâ€™s a mom and pop restaurant or a biotech startup. Innovative resolution of tension involves the discovery of new knowledge and new possibilities that shift the curve of existing trade-offs or eliminate the need for a trade-off and create new value in the process.
While startup founders hope that Innovative Tension is resolved with a profitable solution, this is not always the case, just like in physics sometimes the tension proves to be too much for the system to bear. Team members are let go, startups pivot, investors lose money, and products fail. An awareness of all aspects of Innovative Tension affecting your startup may help minimize the negative impact of these situations or the possibility of these situations occurring at all. But because by definition so much of innovation involves unknowns or unknowable variables, Innovative Tension will always remain the double-edged sword â€“ itâ€™s exactly the same process that makes innovation possible that makes failure possible as well.
Now you are probably thinking why is this even relevant? Well because at core of every successful startup is a team and in every team there needs to be innovative tension. Without innovative tension you can’t create revolutionary products that disrupt the status quo and without understanding it you can’t keep a startup together!
So you think all of this is mumbo jumbo and it probably is but let me give you an example of innovative tension at work, if youâ€™ve been following the tech blogosphere recently youâ€™ve probably heard about the Apple vs. Samsung lawsuit, whether that is a good thing or not is to be discussed another day but the inner workings of how the iPhone was born is slowly becoming public knowledge and you can see innovative tension at play. The iPhone started itâ€™s life as a tabletâ€¦ yes Appleâ€™s vision was to build a tablet (read – iPad), that was in 2003 thatâ€™s four years before the first iPhone was announced! There was a vision to “a beautiful tablet without a keyboard, without a hinge, where you have to fold it like a laptop.” But in 2004 Appleâ€™s top brass while discussing this tablet started to talk about how their cellphones suck and they decided to shelve the tablet and I am sure there were many people that disagreed with that decision and argued to keep the tablet. But Apple successfully managed the innovative tension within the team and launched the iPhone project and the restâ€¦ well you know the story.
Whether you are a startup, a corporation working on creating a new product or a researcher developing something new you cannot truly innovate until you not only understand innovative tension but can also manage it. In the end, in order to challenge the status quo and innovate you have to go beyond your capabilities and comfort zone out of which truly extraordinary results can be achieved, but it comes at the risk of failure. Innovative tension is just a label so that conversations can start and we can all start thinking about how the different forces outside and within our teams affect the success of a project and about how important they are to create revolutionary products, groundbreaking research and disruptive startups! So in the words of the wiseâ€¦ Stay hungry. Stay foolish.