Look at how you like to work. Are you results-driven? Do you actively, even aggressively, push towards those results? Do you like to deal with numbers and facts? Do you base important decisions on that evidence? Are you strong-willed and decisive? If you said yes to most of those questions, congratulations. It’s likely that you’ve been successful in your career. And it’s also likely that, if you’re honest, you’ll have to answer “no” to this question: do you consider yourself to be highly creative?
Successful businesspeople produce superior results in all but one area: creativity. Why should that be? The answer lies in an important insight that I gained recently: The Yin Yang of innovation.

The Yin Yang principle. The ancient Chinese philosophical concept of Yin Yang views the natural world as comprising opposites, which are nevertheless interconnected and interdependent. Such a world consists of polar forces or energies that depend on each other and give rise to each other in turn. As such, these opposites can only exist in relation to one another. Many natural dualities are considered to be expressions of yin and yang, such as female and male, night and day, dark and light, earth and heaven, low and high, cold and hot, winter and summer, slow and fast, soft and hard, yielding and solid, diffuse and focused, and passive and aggressive. Note that the first item in each of those pairs is the yin and the second item the yang.

The ancient Chinese philosophers believed that these complementary opposites interact within a greater whole, and that everything has both yin and yang aspects. This notion is expressed in the most widely known representation of yin and yang, the Taijitu symbol. It comprises a circle divided by an S-shaped line into two equal parts, one black and the other white. Each of those parts contains a dot of the opposite color, making it vaguely resemble a fish. The opposite-colored dot symbolizes the presence of the opposite force in everything.

The Yin nature of creativity. Can you willfully gain important insights when you’re confronted with an ambiguous or uncertain situation? Can you produce breakthrough ideas on the spot when a solution is needed? The answer in both cases is no. While we can purposefully source data and information, insights are gained when open-mindedly exploring ambiguous situations. Similarly, while we can actively mine data and compute results, we cannot actively produce a major breakthrough on command. Our language reflects this: we “get” ideas, which are received as a signal from our subconscious minds.

Let’s relate these thoughts back to Yin Yang. Is creativity yin or yang? You have probably realized that creative thinking is based on yin. We cannot actively seek intuitive realizations, or novel insights, or breakthrough ideas, at will. Instead, we passively receive them, as a radio receives signals. The best we can do is to give our subconscious the raw materials and time it needs, and to attune ourselves to receive the ideas it produces.

The Yin Yang of innovation. Innovation is creativity plus action. We can expand this definition by using Yin Yang. Creativity is yin, action is yang. Neither can stand alone. Creativity without action is only empty dreams; action without creativity can only perpetuate the status quo. Innovation requires both.

Yin Yang implications for modern business thinkers. Is the business world more yin or yang? The aggressive pursuit of results at the heart of business indicates that yang clearly drives and dominates business. It’s no wonder that so many in business find creativity difficult and that most companies are unable to produce meaningful innovation.

Yin Yang teaches that businesspeople and companies alike need to balance their action-oriented yang with their creative yin. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Apply the Yin Yang of innovation to your thinking by balancing analytical thinking with creativity. Logic, but also imagination. Sharply focused details, but also fuzzy generalities.
  • Gather data, but remain receptive to intuitive insights. Information is not an end in itself; it must be viewed through the lenses of experience and intuition to arrive at insight.
  • Realize that there’s more than one way to do things. Open up to new methods, thoughts and ideas.
  • Balance your bias towards action with the patience to wait for insights and ideas.
  • Let go of a challenge you’re working on to allow the subconscious to discover insights and ideas.

Appreciate the interdependent nature of the Yin Yang of innovation.

Understand that ideas require action before they can bear fruit, just as action requires creativity to be successful. Moreover, any creative effort requires a glimpse of focus and action-orientation to be fertile, just as your action need a dose of creativity to be successful. In the creative process underlying every structured innovation method, Yin is followed by Yang which again is followed by Yin. It’s the dynamic interplays of the two opposite thinking styles: divergent thinking (Yin) is follows by convergent thinking (Yang), which again is followed by divergent thinking (Yin). Employ that precious balance: It’s the Yin Yang of innovation.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2017. This article was published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 31 March 2011.