Productive Tensions

From Management on the Cutting Edge

Productive Tensions

How Every Leader Can Tackle Innovation's Toughest Trade-Offs

By Christopher B. Bingham and Rory M. McDonald

How leaders can recast innovation's toughest trade-offs—efficiency vs. flexibility, consistency vs. change, product vs purpose—as productive tensions.





How leaders can recast innovation's toughest trade-offs—efficiency vs. flexibility, consistency vs. change, product vs purpose—as productive tensions.

Why is leading innovation in today's dynamic business environment so distressingly hit-or-miss? More than 90 percent of high-potential ventures don't reach their projected targets. Surveys show that 80 percent of executives consider innovation crucial to their growth strategy, but only 6 percent are satisfied with their innovation performance. Should leaders aim for Steve Jobs-level genius, shower their projects with resources, or lean in to luck and embrace uncertainty? None of the above, say Christopher Bingham and Rory McDonald.

Drawing on cutting-edge research and probing interviews with hundreds of leaders across three continents, Bingham and McDonald find in Productive Tensions that the most effective leaders and successful innovators embrace the tensions that arise from competing aims: efficiency or flexibility? consistency or change? product or purpose? Bingham and McDonald spotlight eight critical tensions that every innovator must master, and they spell out, with dozens of detailed examples of both success and failure, how to navigate them. How do you excite customers about a product they've never imagined? When is it wise to accept what the data is telling you, and when should you ignore the data and plow forward anyway? How can you maintain stakeholders' trust and support during radical unforeseen course corrections? Bingham and McDonald guide readers through innovation's thorniest tensions, using examples drawn from the experience of organizations as varied as P&G, Instagram, the US military, Honda, In-N-Out Burger, Slack, Under Armour, and the snowboarding company Burton.


$29.95 T ISBN: 9780262046930 184 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 10 charts


  • "Based on research and interviews, the authors explain that the tensions inherent in innovation are continuous instabilities that arise from competing aims: efficiency or flexibility? Consistency or change? Product or purpose? The writers offer practical solutions to effectively manage each tension and better navigate the changing nature of businesses characterized by novelty and uncertainty...The model offered in the book simplifies challenges associated with creating new products and services. The main message is to work smarter, by anticipating the tensions that will arise and facing them head on, thus reducing the risk of having to halt innovation efforts and better position the organization to overcome complexity."

    Financial Times


  • Productive Tensions brilliantly empowers leaders to throw off the constraints of either/or thinking that lead to mediocre new products and business models. Packed with practical tools and powerful examples, it's the how-to manual every disruptive innovator needs.

    Carey Jaros

    CEO, Gojo Industries | PURELL

  • The critical insight here is that the path to game-changing innovation leads through a labyrinth of deceptive trade-offs. Productive Tensions is the definitive playbook for skillfully navigating this labyrinth. Whether you are innovating in a major corporation, nonprofit, or tiny venture, this book is pure gold.

    Kathleen M. Eisenhardt

    S. W. Ascherman Professor, Stanford University; coauthor of Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World

  • Visionary leaders leverage present-day inflections to change the trajectory of the world. The process of getting this done is half art and half science. It is knowing where to double down and what to ignore—when to look at data and when to trust your gut. In an increasingly dynamic world, Bingham and McDonald give us a map of how to navigate this complex set of decisions.

    R. Ann Miura-Ko

    Partner, Floodgate

  • Winning at innovation is hard because there is no recipe. Productive Tensions shows how to transcend the key trade-offs that success requires, through original insights rooted in studying both success and failure. Unique, rigorous, practical—it's essential for all innovators.

    Philip Anderson

    INSEAD Alumni Fund Chaired Professor of Entrepreneurship; coauthor of Managing Strategic Innovation and Change

  • Brilliant! Bingham and McDonald provide insightful analysis of innovation's most central tensions and cutting-edge solutions to address them.

    Jason Liberty

    CEO, Royal Caribbean Group