Contestation in Transformative Innovation Policy: Harnessing tensions as windows of opportunity

Thinking & Analysis

Socio-technical transitions are contested processes, often characterised by conflict. However, the tensions experienced by stakeholders can act as windows of opportunity to further transition goals if their generative potential for learning and innovation can be harnessed. In this guest insight paper, Dr Len Kelleher of the UCI Policy Evidence Unit University of Cambridge – and member of the Network of Coaches for the TIP Resource Lab – draws on recent advances in the fields of strategic management and futures studies to discuss the nature of tensions and how they may be effectively harnessed to advance transition goals.

During transformative innovation policy (TIP) experiments, stakeholders can often disagree about the nature of a social problem, possible solutions or the values that should guide improvements. This ‘contestation’, when combined with uncertainty and complexity, can make a social problem ‘wicked’ (i.e. unruly and intractable) (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Three dimensions of wicked problems (adapted from Head, 2008; Wanzenböck et al., 2020)

However, some have argued that contestation is at the very core of what makes TIP experiments transformative (Torrens et al., 2019). For example, in the study of how geographical factors influence transitions, different literatures have emphasised the role of contested politics in creating shared understandings of a place’s future possibilities, and of political relations in the construction of places (Murphy, 2015).

In this insight paper, I approach the issue of contestation from an institutional perspective. Geels (2020) has recently noted that contestation is experienced in the form of ‘tensions’ as actors encounter conflicting institutions or institutional logics. Such tensions have ‘generative potential’ in that they generate a desire for change. Effective strategic management of tensions enables this potential to be harnessed, and windows of opportunity for niche diffusion and regime unlocking to be seized.

The remainder of this paper is divided into the following sections:

  1. Introduction to the concept of tensions
  2. Types of tension responses
  3. Discussion of a selection of paradox experienced within TIP contexts
  4. Identification of key pivot points to harness tensions
  5. Tools and approaches to enable strategic management of tensions at key pivot points

1. What is a tension?

‘Tensions’ are defined as ‘a wide variety of dichotomies, dualities, conflicts, inconsistencies, and contradictory pulls or demands experienced by those in a particular setting that appear to represent different and contradictory poles and, as such, seem to require a choice of one or the other’ (Bartunek and Rynes, 2014).

Under this umbrella term lies a range of different types of tension (see Table 1). Understanding the nature of a particular tension being experienced is important in determining how best to approach its management.

Table 1: Typology of tensions

Source: (Ahlqvist, 2022; Berti and Cunha, 2022; Putnam, Fairhurst and Banghart, 2016; Smith and Lewis, 2011, 2022)

2. Types of tension responses

Tensions elicit responses, and the type of response is a fundamental determinant of success in achieving goals. There are two main types of response, contingency and paradox (Lewis and Smith, 2014).

Dans un contingency approach, tensions are viewed as discrete problems to be solved. The approach emphasises selecting among competing demands through use of an ‘either/or’ mindset to weigh pros and cons of available options. This approach acts as the foundation of most strategic management, under a key assumption that organisational systems are most effective when they achieve alignment or fit between internal elements and the external environment. However, contingency perspectives accept that some situations will be intractable, and that accommodating conflicting demands will be impossible (Capizzo and Sommerfeldt, 2021).

Dans un paradox approach, tensions are viewed as ubiquitous and persistent forces which cannot be permanently solved. From this perspective, a contingency approach is seen to aid short-term performance but is unsustainable over the long term because of the persistent and interdependent nature of paradox. This leads to ‘vicious cycles’ including (Smith and Lewis, 2022):

  • Rabbit holes – actors become stuck in a rut where strengths are overplayed or favoured tension responses overused, hindering learning and growth
  • Wrecking balls – actors ping-pong between competing poles of a tension because intense pressure from the neglected pole triggers overcorrection
  • Trench warfare – polarisation deepens ruts, escalating tensions to antagonism and parallax gaps.

From a paradox perspective, the goal is to harness the generative potential of paradox within ‘virtuous cycles’ of learning, innovation and adaptation on a continuing basis. This can be achieved by dynamically attending to competing demands of a paradox simultaneously. Doing so requires actors to adopt more expansive ‘both/and thinking’ to reframe the issue as a duality rather than a dilemma or dualism.

The paradox approach encompasses two possible categories of response to a paradoxical tension: defensive (based on contingency or ‘either/or’ thinking) or strategic (using paradoxical ‘both/and’ thinking) (Lewis and Smith, 2014). These two categories encompass a range of response strategies (Table 2).

Table 2: Repertoire of paradox response strategies

Source: (Jarzabkowski and Lê, 2017)

3. Types of paradox in TIP contexts

Paradoxes underlie our most wicked societal problems (Smith and Lewis, 2022). A wide range of paradox have been identified in the literature, and these may be grouped within four main types: belonging, performing, learning and organising (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Types of paradox with illustrative examples (adapted from Smith and Lewis, 2022)

There does not appear to be significant uptake of the paradox approach in the transformative innovation policy literature, suggesting that the approach may offer a largely untapped opportunity to progress transition goals within TIP experiments. A number of papers have identified various TIP-related paradoxes (Table 3). Of these, only two describe the use of a paradox management approach as a response. Collaborative governance efforts were found to progress by adopting a ‘both/and’ mindset to transcend challenges of substantive problem-solving, collaborative process, and multi-relational accountability (Waardenburg et al., 2020). Researchers were found to adopt paradox management strategies to deal with tensions between public science and commercial research (Ashby, Riad and Davenport, 2019).

Table 3: Paradoxes experienced within TIP contexts

4. Harnessing tensions as windows of opportunity for transitions

Tensions must be strategically managed if their generative potential is to be realised and windows of opportunity for transitions seized. To better enable strategic management, in this section I use Berti and Cunha’s (2022) double loop model of paradox to describe how tensions are experienced over time as trade-offs, paradoxes or dialectics, and identify key pivot points for intervention (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Double loop model of paradox (adapted from Berti and Cunha, 2022)

The model’s starting point is a ‘latent’ – dormant, unperceived, or ignored – tension between two conflicting poles (e.g. fast-slow, mission-market). The tension becomes salient – noticed by actors – when environmental factors (e.g. resource scarcity) or actors’ cognitive efforts accentuate the conflicting and interrelated poles, and the need for a response.

Trade-off perspective

Actors may initially approach the tension as a trade-off as this perspective is useful in discriminating latent tensions according to their degree of ‘interdependence’. In a loosely interdependent tension, poles are in a non-zero-sum relationship, and synergies may be possible (i.e. combining the two poles results in better performance). In a tightly interdependent tension, the poles are mutually exclusive and no synergies are possible.

The intensity of interdependence is dependent on:

  • Scarcity of resources – interdependence tightens where there is little slack as actors are forced to choose where to allocate limited resources
  • Polarisation – interdependence tightens where actors are fixated on their own interests, goals and beliefs, and unable to recognise interdependencies between poles
  • Organisational capabilities – tightness can be mitigated by organisational capabilities to make operational compromises, by reframing contexts to reduce the trade-off’s significance, or through dual-purpose governance arrangements.

Tightly interdependent trade-offs can be managed by optimising and strategic positioning, i.e. assessing relative cost/benefit of alternative combinations to select an optimal balance between poles and using this to strategically position organisations.

This perspective enables us to identify a first pivot point for intervention:

Paradox perspective

As actors attempt to achieve an optimal balance within a trade-off, they face a double challenge of dealing with possible dilemmas caused by their choice (e.g. having to sacrifice a desirable outcome) and providing a rational account of their choice which is seen as legitimate.

Sometimes, they will be unable to rationalise a preferred state – a condition known as ‘undecidability’. The reason for this is that underlying the trade-off is a paradox, whose persistent and interdependent nature makes taking sides impossible.

Undecidability is a condition generated by:

  • Breakdown in the organisational ‘measurement apparatus’, i.e. its rules, policies, reward systems, and resource allocation models that concretely enact the paradox
  • Contrasting demands from powerful stakeholders that place decision makers in a double bind.

Yet actors must act, even in the face of undecidability. They may select a defensive response, invoking an ‘either/or’ mindset to frame the tension as a dilemma or dualism. In this case, the response will be construed as a forced choice and will prove unsustainable over the long term. Alternatively, they may select a strategic response, using a ‘both/and’ mindset to reframe the paradox as a duality. Because the paradox is persistent, it can be harnessed as a long-term invitation to learn, innovate, be creative, and explore synergies and mutual accommodations.

This perspective enables us to identify a second pivot point for intervention:

The employment of ‘both/and’ mindsets is determined and sustained by factors including:

  • Individual traits of the actor
  • Cultural frames
  • Social network characteristics
  • Organisational ‘measurement apparatus’ (i.e. practices, routines, incentives and disciplinary mechanisms, structures, material artefacts).

In addition to mindset and framing, the level of agency granted to the actor is also important in determining whether the generative potential of the paradox is harnessed. Power relations affect agency, determining what tensions are made salient, what responses are enabled or impaired, and what coping strategies are preferred. Where an actor has not been granted sufficient agency to formulate proactive responses, the paradox may be experienced as a pathology, leading to emotional distress, a sense of absurdity, withdrawal and ritualistic obedience.

Dialectical perspective

The actor’s response to paradox may have an impact on organisational performance. Where the response stabilises or boosts performance, the paradox becomes less salient and a single loop learning process ensures the status quo is maintained.

However, where the response (or an external shock) leads to a performance decrease, existing power relations can be disrupted and a potential for double loop learning emerges. At this point, actors may be able to leverage power conflicts and contradictions to bring about radical change through dialectical transformation.

Dialectical transformation proceeds through a political conflict between thesis and antithesis, and is determined by human ‘praxis’ (i.e. types of political action embedded within institutional structures) (Seo and Creed, 2002). A new synthesis emerges to resolve the conflict, which may lead to a different optimisation problem or set of paradoxes. This will eventually spark new thesis-antithesis conflicts and new opportunities for double loop learning in an ongoing interplay. It is worth noting that the dialectic approach’s focus on power differs from the ‘power-neutral’ paradox approach (van Bommel and Spicer, 2017).

This perspective enables us to identify a third pivot point for intervention:

5. Tools and approaches to enable strategic management of tensions at key pivot points

Having identified three key pivot points for intervention, we now turn to the identification of tools and approaches to enable TIP practitioners to strategically manage tensions at these points.

 Managing tightly interdependent trade-offs using a contingency approach

Contingency approaches to managing trade-offs are well established within policy practice in general (for example, see Christensen and Yoshimi, 2003; Cristofoli, Trivellato and Verzillo, 2019; Mansbridge, 2014; Scott and Merton, 2022).

I draw attention to one example of particular relevance to this paper, a contingency-based framework to facilitate reflection on the causal factors of a wicked problem, and identification of ways to tackle them (Alford and Head, 2017) (Figure 4). This framework is useful in querying the apparent tight interdependence of a tension and counters tendencies to totalise all wicked problems as unsolvable.

Figure 4: Contingency framework of wicked problem causal factors (adapted from Alford and Head, 2017)

Managing paradox using the Paradox System

A useful starting point for TIP practitioners interested in experimenting with paradox management is the recently published Paradox System (Smith and Lewis, 2022), a practical guide aimed at organisational leaders. The system (Figure 5) identifies activities to invoke both/and thinking, to establish boundaries which facilitate paradox management, to use emotions as a resource and to develop capabilities within the organisation to harness the generative potential of paradox.

Figure 5: The paradox system (adapted from Smith and Lewis, 2022)

Leveraging power conflicts using dialectical approaches

The dialectic approach typically seeks to leverage power conflicts to resolve the tension between an undesirable current state and more desirable future state. The TIPC community will be most familiar with the multi-level theory of change (ToC) as a dialectic-based tool to enable reflexivity and stakeholder engagement to facilitate system change.

However, it is often more technocratic and less politicised or reflexive dialectic approaches, such as the Delphi method (Helmer, 1983) or competitive scenarios planning (Fahey and Randall, 1998), that are used by policy makers (Ahlqvist and Rhisiart, 2015; GO-Science, 2017). This raises the question of whether one dialectic approach is better than another.

We can address this question using Future-oriented dialectics (Ahlqvist, 2022), a framework to analyse future-oriented societal development tendencies. The approach sees societal system change resulting from various types of spatio-temporal trajectory dynamics, and identifies four possible ideal system-level configurations: continuity, discontinuity, transition, and crisis & transformation (Figure 6). By using dialectic thinking to analyse the trajectory dynamics and system configurations associated with a given scenario, we may better identify an appropriate tool for that scenario. To illustrate, the multi-level ToC is suitable for a transitional context, but may be less appropriate for a crisis scenario, where urgency favours top-down priority-setting and disfavours equitable distribution of R&D funding, even at the risk of disrupting the innovation system (Gross and Sampat, 2021).

Figure 6: Future-oriented dialectics system-level configurations (adapted from Ahlqvist, 2022)


Socio-technical transitions are contested processes, but the tensions experienced by stakeholders may be harnessed to seize windows of opportunity for transitions. This insight paper introduces foundational concepts and recent advances in strategic management and futures studies which can better enable TIPC community members to strategically manage tensions for the advancement of transition goals.

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