Problems with the Creative Tension Model

Tom GibbonsOrganization Development11 Comments

Creative Tension Model

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:

CRP Model

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

11 Comments on “Problems with the Creative Tension Model”

  1. Agreed….well-said. Like the analogy of the Senior Citizens and the down-sized employee!!! We need new models like this to change organizations! And to change the thinking of workers in our current organizations and those that are being let go through no reasons of their own doing….Helpful to point out the problems with the Vision as an ‘end goal,’ and the Creative Tension is with us to stay….within the ongoing changes that are all part of Corporate life for a long time. Thanks for the thoughts. Janet

  2. Tom,
    I always appreciate your thinking!
    Just a couple of quick thoughts. I like your framework AND the creative tension framework. The two cores of the creative tension framework have been, for me, the notion of honesty around current reality, and the notion of not lowering the vision. Those strike me as being of use.
    The vision for me has always been aspirational. I’m not getting your notion of how one’s aspirations marginalize oneself. Who is doing the marginalizing?
    I’m assuming your “intention” is on some level the equivalent of “vision”, though perhaps containing more of a sense of emergence than is embedded in the notion of vision?
    Thanks Tom.

  3. Tom,
    I too appreciate your thinking and now seeing your ideas here in this media is awesome. I would like to ask a question: Is the intention here that both models are a standalone concept verses an integration of the models.

    I too have some reservations of the Creative Tension Model and could add to the problems outlined and yet I have seen the need for it in all corporations. If there is no vision of what is next pushing the bar higher corporations can get complacent and stagnate. I also can see the need for the Complex Responsive Processes Model incorporated with the Creative Tension Model to correct or overcome that models deficits. I am not sure the Complex Responsive Processes Model alone can be used for future visioning process corporations need to move forward and stay ahead of changes in this global environment. Just understanding the experiences and intentions of each interaction it seems to me to have its own set of limitations.

    I would love to hear from you on the idea of incorporating both and the potential value or flaws this could bring. Regards, Pam

  4. Hello Tom, I would be interested in knowing more about this model, so I can understand it better. It leads me to think about a basic assumption we make in modern culture summed up in exhortations like “Grow or Die”. The tendency is to assume, at an organizzational level for instance that this means “always more, bigger”. In my understanding its more like “change or die” (it is interesting to note that here in Hawaii, in the Hawaiian language. the world used for death is “make”, which actually means “change”. Even death is change. We are stuck in the modern world on an assumption of increased size, strength, control, power, and youth. All these are the preferences of the ego. The actuality of life is change, wse get bigger and then smaller, we rise and we fall, we grow and we die. It seems to me that your insight suggests that we need to consider the importance of being as well as doing. There is the value of being and expressing oneself in the current moment, without the need for tension. There is also the possibility of a vision for a smaller future, downsizing as a good thing, participating in shutting an organization down as a good thing. I suspect we need, in this modern world to begin embracing aspects of life that go beyond the demands of the ego,down as well as up, small as big as large, vulnerable as well as powerful. Thank you for your illuminating post Tom. Aloha, Kim

  5. WOW! Awesome comments everyone and thanks very much for them!

    Lots to repsond to here but I will try and be concise and see what happens….

    First the ideology of Complex Responsive Processes is the work of Ralph Stacey and colleagues. It seriously challenges much of mainstream thinking in organizations. You can find more information at

    If you were going to look further at this I woulod suggest the book – Complexity and Management: Fad or radical challenge to systems thinking? by Ralph Stacey, Douglas Griffin and Patricia Shaw

    Personally I have moved away completely from the creative tension model but it was a fairly long process. First I worked with the concept of vision as directional rather than destination. Then, somewhat like you Ken I talked about the need for honesty, however for me I placed the importance of honesty with the vision, to try and offset the powerful influence of espoused culture. I placed a strong sense of realism with current reality so there was thinking about how much real change might be needed to move in the direction of vision. Then I would work very hard to make the action plans to close the gap be focused on local interactions and I tried to keep those minimal rather than pages and pages.

    These changes I felt were significant from where I started which was with Innovation Associates (Bryan Smith, Peter Senge etc.) Visionary Leadership and Planning work.

    Eventually what I came to find for me was that nothing was more inportant than the local interactions and the creative tension model was too hard to work with to emphasize this and have people really work with this idea. That was when I/we (since Bonnie Cooper was instrumental in this thinking as well) extrapolated the model above which is a representation of a samll part of Stacey’s work.

    For me it is a fundametally different view of the world and when I heard Douglas Griffin (Stacey’s colleague) refer to it as an ideology I stuck with that term since it is a way of looking at the world and not a hard fact or the ‘truth’. The primary difference of this ideology is that it views the (human) world as social processes of emergence through the patterns of communicative interaction between people.

    So while I do not use the creative tension model I do think the idea of vision is still viable although we do not use it in our own organization. However, I think vision needs to be used at a local level and the idea of shared vision outside of local interactions, for me is really a problem and in most cases a huge waste of time and effort. So I think the idea of vision is fine but that it needs to be outside of the creative tension model since this model distances vision from the interactions that will move you in that direction and makes the vision meaningless for most people in an organization in terms of what they do day to day.

    Ken, regarding the marginalization stuff, I certainly do not see one’s aspirations as being the cause of marginalization. It is the time gap in the creative tension model that can create this and those that do not see someone as fitting into this time gap are the ones that would cause this marginalization. Using George Herbert Mead’s idea of Gesture/Response, if you made a ‘gesture’ to contribute (to the vision let’s say) and the response was one that did not recognize this gesture as valuable then I would say that could be defined as maginilization. The time gap in the creative tension model contributes in a big way to this type of response.

    Kim, I very much agree with your points about the dominant way we currently see growth etc. in organizations. Our blog Different Times – Different Conversations talks about this a bit as well. Through the lens of complex responsive processes I would say that this is a result of the patterns of interaction that occur between people within organizations. Your idea of ego would be our actual physical participation in these patterns and if we were to change this, then the patterns of our interactions would need to change. Interestingly, Stacey as part of this work studied group analysis and his book ‘Complexity and group processes: a radically social understanding of individuals’ I found very interesting as I do have a psychological bent myself…

    So hopefully this has not been too long winded but I did want to respond to your great comments in some fashion and hopefully this has shed a little more light on where we are coming from and some other doors to open should you wish to.

  6. Hi Tom,

    Great post. I thought your story of the older people living full lives in the present was very powerful.

    I agree with your dislike of the creative tension model of vision. But then I have a problem with the notion of vision as a desired ‘end state’ anyway.

    In relation to the popular notion of leaders providing vision, I prefer to think of this as leaders (throughout an organization) helping people to ‘see better’, through their day-to-day interactions with them. That is, helping them to make different sense of emerging events (and/or past experience) than they might otherwise have done. From this perspective, vision is more about insight than far sight.

    This seems broadly consistent with your model, with its focus on everyday interactions. And in this, of course, managers (and anyone else for that matter) can act with intention but with no certainty of outcome.

    Cheers, Chris

    By the way, I wrote a post a few months back in which I drew a picture of Staceys notion of the living present:

    Thanks for your regular comments on my own blog.

    Here’s to continuing conversations!

  7. It is said Truth is seldom the destination, and very often the Journey. Tom your quest continues and make us fellow travelers on your question.

    Another angle that strikes me is this. Creative tension is the acknowledgment of the accompanying anxiety of stretching through moments without precedent. That anxiety inevitably gets resolved, if it is approached creatively. As moments die to the past, so do opportunities emerge to the future. Anxiety is but a by-product of the resolution attempts in meeting the future.

    The older folk at the food court, were only being in the moment. What should they be anxious about?

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