The creative tension model, often visually represented as outlined in the diagram to the right, is the dominant model of how organizations accomplish goals, set and execute strategy, change and generally operate as they move into the future. It is so mainstream and dominant that the efficacy of the model is rarely questioned; it is simply the way things are done.
I would like to point out some of the real problems I have experienced with this model (eventually causing me not to use it in my work anymore) and then focus on one problem in particular that I think is very important and just recently emerged for me. I would also be very interested in your experiences with this model and perhaps we can generate some valuable interaction…read more.
Below are some of the problems I have experienced with this model that after a number of years caused me to stop using it:
- It stimulates thinking of vision as a destination rather than a process of movement.
- It depicts a relatively straight line from current reality to vision ignoring the messiness and unexpected things that happen in moving toward the vision.
- It positions vision as ‘better’ than current reality therefore the present is always not where you want to be.
- It assumes that someone (typically senior management) can plot a course to the vision that should work. And if the vision is not achieved someone is seen as incompetent or a failure. It produces blame.
- It ignores historical experience to a large extent making it very hard to understand how significant the changes may be to move to the vision.
- Creative tension is seen as something good and powerful and discussion about how hard or painful it can be is not encouraged.
- Vision is typically dramatically affected by espoused cultural values of what is right and good at the expense of the actual context in which it is created.
- More subtly but very important is this model reinforces the idea that reaching vision is about survival.
So these are a few problems but the one that I would like to focus on a little more is
- Sooner or later the creative tension model will compromise your individual capacity to express yourself and add value. You, as a person will be marginalized by it.
A few months ago I was sitting in a shopping mall food court waiting for a colleague. This particular mall is situated quite close to a number of residences for senior citizens so when you sit in the food court you are surrounded by a lot of older people. Some were having coffee in groups, some were sitting alone reading, some in wheelchairs, and some with canes moving slowly around. And there was quite a buzz in the air.
It struck me as I sat there waiting, that these people were not doing what they were doing out of a need to survive, they were here expressing themselves. Expressing their emerging identities. The purpose of their activities (and ours) is about expressing our identities, not about survival.
One of the key facts of the creative tension model is that there is a gap between current reality and vision and while this gap is talked about as creative tension it also means that there is a time element involved in moving from one point to the other. How this model compromises you is that if you do not have much time left (perceived or real) you cannot easily contribute since you will not be around for the completion of the journey and the completion is all important.
And while this certainly applies to older people who are very much marginalized in the west in general and in organizations specifically this is not just about age. If you have ever been downsized out of an organization but had some time to transition out you have found that as soon as people know you are going it’s like you don’t exist, even if you have months left in the organization. Or if you have been on a project for a time then get moved to another part of the organization or another role you are dumped from that project as if you had died.
If you don’t fit into the perceived time frame of the gap between vision and current reality there is a really good chance you will marginalized. The impact of this is pretty obvious in terms of marginalized performance as a result.
I don’t actually think you can work with the creative tension model ‘better’ to fix these types of problems. I think you need different thinking and different models.
A model (and I hesitate to create models since they are often interpreted as systems diagrams and then the point gets missed… but here goes anyway) that we use now and is informed by the ideology of Complex Responsive Processes is outlined below:
It is very important to note that with this model we take the somewhat philosophical position that the purpose of our activities (even life) is about the expression of emergent identity, not survival.
Experience is the past, interaction is the present and intentions are the future and this model is a never ending process that can represent how we move through life, including our organizational lives. In terms of the point about marginalization above, this model takes the possibility of this occurring out of the time frame problem and into the interactions we have with people. It is not that marginalization won’t necessarily occur, but it will not occur based on time lines and action plans. Within this model is the possibility for contribution regardless of the time we have ‘left’.
This model and the thinking behind it also help us move to a different place with many of the problems noted above with the creative tension model. But it does not solve those problems. What it does is put those problems and the many others we face in our organizations directly into the process of interactions we have with others, since it is only in those interactions that we move forward together. And therein lies one of our greatest challenges. To stay present to our interactions and recognize the choices we are making within them.
Author – Tom