Creative Tension vs. “All of the Above”

In my post on creative tensions in philanthropy I wrote:

“Yet, the social sector is often far too quick to shout out that the answer is we need “Both/And, not Either/Or!” The mistake in this approach is that rather than grappling with the creative tension between different goals, we instead ignore the tension in our hurry to validate the importance of the different goals.”

Bill Schambra of the Hudson Institute, who hosts regular philanthropy themed debates, responded to me via email (quoted with permission):

“The field is indeed highly allergic to the kind of debate we both try to prompt, and as a result, the vigorous back-and-forth between different points of view – which is the only means by which both views can be fully developed and illuminated, and the most effective way to make them clearer to an attentive audience – never occurs.  As soon as the first sparks fly, someone almost immediately invokes the can’t-we-all-get-along “both/and” ploy, and the conversation ends in a feel-good but utterly vapid consensus.  As you point out, that’s not how real learning happens. Why do you think this is such a powerful nervous tic among philanthropoids?”

However reader Keith Kerber writes:

“I agree absolutely that the 3rd sector needs to embrace creative tension. However, I don’t understand how validating the "both/and" leads to ignoring the tension of differing goals. It seems to me that when we embrace the need for "both/and" (heart vs analysis, science vs art – however you wish to call it) we automatically place ourselves in the tension.”

The difference between acknowledging and wrestling with creative tensions and simply saying that “both are important” is that the creative tension concept recognizes that there are tensions between the two approaches.

For instance, it is clear that we need both “passionate commitment and dispassionate analysis” as Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy argued in a comment on my post. However, studies show that the activity of “dispassionate analysis” (or any sort of logic based thinking) decreases human empathy. When we simply say we need both passion and analysis, we avoid the tension that exists between the two (in fairness, I think Phil gets the concept of “creative tension” and is comfortable wrestling with them).

As I wrote in my first post, sometimes two goals are aligned and no tension exists between the two. I can agree that “both/and” is true for dual goals which generate no internal conflict. But many dual goals in philanthropy do conflict.

That’s OK. Life is complicated. But we must not simply choose to celebrate “all of the above”. We must deal with the fact that some goals are simultaneously positive and contradictory. Ignoring this reality will only limit our ability to achieve any of our goals.

{Reminder: As I explained before, the term “creative tensions” came from a recent Monitor Institute report.]


  1. I guess it is, to some degree, a matter of semantics. In my response I assume that the first step to action occurs when one acknowledges or validates the need for “both/and.” I presume that a leader who acknowledges this will act upon it (live in the creative tension) and not merely give it “lip service.” That, seems to be the difference that you are attempting to delineate.
    Embracing the creative tension -not easy since we all would prefer to play to our strengths and preferences, – definitely makes a person or an organization sharper in his/her/its work.

    • I think that’s true to some extent. Maybe the difference is I’m urging people to embrace the tension between two goals, not just embrace both goals. For instance most everyone is comfortable saying the are for lower government spending and lower taxes, but they don’t want cuts to any actual program that they benefit from. So embracing lower spending and lower taxes isn’t enough. We have to embrace the creative tensions between multiple goals.