How to Work with Tension in Design

The ultimate purpose of a design project is to change something. It might be kickstarting sales, making stuff more findable, or addressing a competitive challenge. Whatever it is, the project exists because someone wants something to be different.

Changes reveal tensions. Often, teams are invested in the status quo. For example, sales may want product to introduce new features, while product wants a simpler experience. More capabilities increase complexity, so the two are in tension.

Projects are rife with such tensions — and they often go unacknowledged. Not surprising, since dealing with tensions can be uncomfortable. If you’ve ever been in a meeting with a surly stakeholder, you know how awkward these situations can be.

As a result, we steer clear of issues that focus attention on tension. But avoiding tensions is a mistake. Unacknowledged tensions fester, fostering animosity. Colleagues undermine each others’ efforts — often while keeping up a cooperative façade.

Counter-intuitively, unacknowledged tensions can also be a missed opportunity to innovate. Both parties have valid reasons for their positions — at least from their perspectives. Looking to address both can lead to unexpected solutions.

Therefore, it’s important to acknowledge tensions. I keep a running list in every project. They manifest as concept pairs:

Short-term sales <--> Long-term objectives

Product capabilities <--> Ecosystem cohesiveness

Bottom-up adaptability <--> Top-down control

I share these lists with stakeholders — at first individually, but eventually in shared contexts. (This is easier if you’re an outside consultant; internal team members often support one position based on their location in the org chart.)

But calling out tensions is only a starting point. What do you do beyond making tensions clear and broadly understood? There are three basic approaches:

  1. Favor one direction over the other. Requires executive support, ideally at the highest levels. You must ensure everyone’s clear on what’s being sacrificed and the implications.
  2. Look for middle ground. Requires understanding the (real) incentives pulling in each direction, and identifying possible areas of alignment. This can be hard and time-consuming.
  3. Re-frame the issue. Requires considering alternative ways of thinking about the situation that might be appealing to both parties.

Approach 1 supposes one direction is clearly preferable to the other. (Are you sure?) Approach 2 requires deft political maneuvering and the outcome may not end up pleasing anyone. Therefore, I’m especially fond of approach 3.

Re-framing uncovers new ways of thinking about the domain, driving alignment and infusing energy into the project. For example, in the example above, you could ask: how could increased simplicity manifest as a new product feature?

Design is the ideal discipline to explore the implications of different frames since it produces tangible artifacts. A prototype can be a better tool for understanding and validating strategic directions than a spreadsheet or slide deck.

However you do it, please consider tensions in your work. While delving into tensions can be uncomfortable, not doing so can lead to undesirable outcomes.

Cover photo by Republic of Korea (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A version of this post originally appeared in my newsletter.


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