How Great Teams Leverage Tension as a Source for Innovation

“Collaboration is the art and sport of channeling and unlocking tension and using it in a positive way.”
—Daniel Coyle, Author of The Culture Code

Daniel Coyle and Coe Leta Stafford, IDEO U

In this episode of our Creative Confidence Series, New York Times bestselling author Daniel Coyle chats with IDEO U Managing Director Coe Leta Stafford about his newest book, The Culture Code, three skills that the most successful teams have in common, and how high performing teams react to tension differently. He shares why these skills are important and tactical ways to implement them today, whether you’re leading a team or want to make a change from wherever you sit.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

What feelings does the word tension bring up for you? If you said uncomfortable, bad, or distracting, you’re not alone. But author and teams expert Daniel Coyle wants us to think about tension differently—as an indicator of potential, energy, excitement, and an opportunity for growth.

Daniel is the New York Times bestselling author of The Talent Code and The Culture Code, a book that explores the secrets of highly effective teams. He’s studied teamwork across many industries, from the military to sports and media, and he finds that while the work we do may differ, the teams that perform the best are adept at three key skill areas: building safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose.

Complex Challenges Require a New Way of Working

In the past, authoritative cultures with mandated direction based on fear and obedience were effective enough. But as the world has evolved and the challenges we face have become increasingly complex, Daniel says old ways of working won’t cut it. We need a different style of teamwork.

“All the simple tasks are gone,” Daniel says. “Everything in our landscape now is complex, it’s ambiguous, and it’s changing fast. No one person can have the answers.”

And when people need to work together to come up with new ideas, tension is a natural part of that process. When entering the building at Pixar, for example, Daniel says it’s understandable to imagine everyone would be working happily, in agreement and on the same page. But there’s actually a lot of friction present and these teams disagree all the time.

“They’re happy in a different way,” he observes. “They’re shoulder to shoulder solving really hard problems together.”

Daniel gives the example of the Navy Seals. Formerly the “stepchild of the Special Forces,” the Seals turned traditional training on its head and instead focused on “out teaming” everyone. They now practice making decisions in real time based on what they find out, not what they had planned, and communicating those decisions well among their group.

Building Trust Through Vulnerability

“People always talk about culture in terms of a poster on the wall or a catchphrase,” Daniel says. “When it comes to vulnerability and safety especially, they're behaviors.” And leaders need to model those behaviors they want their teams to emulate. Building a safe space and a culture of belonging is the most important first step. Then comes vulnerability.

Often people think trust should be established first before anyone will feel comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities or weaknesses. But Daniel says “we've got it exactly backwards...You don't trust until you get vulnerable. You be vulnerable because it generates trust.”


“All the simple tasks are gone. Everything in our landscape now is complex, it’s ambiguous, and it’s changing fast. No one person can have the answers.”
Daniel Coyle


Take Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar. Daniel shared a story of a time where Ed joined some engineers who were working on a problem. The group was a little nervous having their leader so closely observe their work until he said: “When you’re done, could you come up to my office and teach me how to do that?” By taking a risk and sharing his willingness to learn, he built trust with the team.

“As leaders, creating these moments of vulnerability is extraordinarily powerful,” he says. “And it’s also powerful as an exercise for the group.”

This goes beyond creating the warm fuzzies—it actually helps teams perform better.

“Vulnerability has heart, but it also has brains,” Daniel says.

Tension as an Energy Source

One of the biggest mistakes a leader can make, according to Daniel, is to rush to diffuse tensions on their team. That gut instinct may be coming from the right motivation, but it’s based on a misunderstanding of what a healthy team looks like.

“The idea that you can all agree all the time and not have tension is a huge fallacy,” Daniel says. Consider a combustion engine that needs a spark to ignite the powerful motor or an athlete that trains and stresses their muscles to build strength and agility.

You’ll see the potential in harnessing tension “if you can change the way you think about it from being a source of pain to a source of energy.”

Tension between ideas shows up in a few common areas: innovation vs. tradition, speed vs. performance, and performance vs. learning and development, for example.

“The fact these tensions exist is not a bad thing,” Daniel says. “I would argue it’s a very good thing. It challenges us to deal with it.”

3 Steps to Go From Tension to Innovation

So tension naturally arises. Great, but what do you do with it? Shifting your mindset to think of collaboration in a different way is a good starting point.

Daniel offers a new definition: “Collaboration is the art and sport of channeling and unlocking tension and using it in a positive way.”

To turn tensions into innovative new ideas, try this three-step process Daniel used while working with the Cleveland Indians baseball team to rethink the beloved tradition of batting practice.

How to Harness Tension

Step 1: Name it

Traditionally, players warm up with easy pitches, but performance data suggested that a more challenging warm-up could be beneficial. This friction quickly became contentious.

To gather information, the team did a culture capture and surveyed the entire organization. This survey helped identify the friction as that between tradition and innovation, or old-school and new-school approaches.

Naming the source of the tension created a space for players and coaches to have an open conversation about it. “When you name an obstacle, you can self-organize around it,” Daniel says.

Step 2: Co-create an experiment to learn

Instead of arguing about beliefs or hypothetical outcomes, the next step is to co-create an experiment to gather real data. In the baseball example, they tried the traditional approach for some teams and prototyped a new, more difficult machine-batting practice for others. Players didn’t like the new approach at first because it was much harder, but they saw improvement in their game performance. That shifted the conversation to one based on outcomes and data.

The goal here is not to find a perfect solution, but to learn more together. Daniel says it allows you to say “let's trust the experiment."

Step 3: Turn tensions into powerful stories

To expand the lessons your team learned and carry them through a larger organization, craft a story that gets others on board with a new way of thinking.

“When you tell a story about something, that story can travel,” Daniel says.

An older coach became an advocate for the new machine-batting practice approach and convinced others to support it by sharing a story of how his team had used the same idea many years ago in the form of warming up with a skilled pitcher who threw tough curve balls.

While data and outcomes may be the driver for change, “data doesn’t create change—story does,” Daniel says. A well-crafted narrative can bring others on board and connect them with your purpose.

“What smart organizations and creative leaders can probably do better is treat story as a resource and an asset,” Daniel says. “They are maybe your most precious asset when it comes to making change.”

Moments That Matter on Teams

It can be overwhelming to think you’ve got to perfect and plan every team interaction. Take a breath, Daniel says, there are lots of things you can do to improve the effectiveness of your team, but if nothing else, focus on these three moments that matter the most: the first five minutes of interaction, the first disagreement, and the first adaptation or learning moment. These moments have an outsized impact on the culture that you are able to build for your team.

Get tips and techniques for guiding teams through creative collaboration by embracing diverse perspectives and tension in our 5-week online course Cultivating Creative Collaboration. Learn more about creating a movement to spark change—in your organization or network—in our 5-week course Designing for Change.

Courses Starting Soon

Foundations In Design Thinking - IDEO U Certificate
Designing Strategy Course from IDEO U