Creative Tension

Some time ago I was introduced to the concept of Creative Tension.  Creative Tension is measured by the difference between our goals and our current reality. Think of it as a stretched rubber band.

You can relieve the tension by reducing your goals to match your current reality, or change your perception of your current reality to be closer to your goals.

wm Canvas | Creative Tension


Successful organizations are built on Creative Tension.  It is a DAILY discomfort with the current reality.   Imagine working at Apple, particularly with Steve Jobs. How far was his rubber band stretched? Did some creativity come out of the tension?

Martin Luther King embraced creative tension. He said, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue…I must confess that I am not afraid of the word, tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive tension that is necessary for growth.” How far was his rubber band stretched? Did he achieve significant results?

As design professionals, we are in a constant state of creative tension as we strive to improve our reality (we just started a project) to meet our goals (the deadline is in two weeks).

When setting goals for your team, follow this game plan:

  1. Set goals without worrying how you will get there.
  2. Make an honest assessment of the current reality.
  3. OK, now the rubber band is stretched. If it isn’t, it should be. If it feels like it will break, relieve some tension by modifying the goals without changing the honest assessment of the current reality.

Finalize the goals.  Is everyone feeling the tension?  Your team’s success depends on it!


Michael Murphy, PE

Michael Murphy, PE
Director, Civil Engineering
p. 925.244.9620