Problems with the Creative Tension Model – A Recent Story

Tom GibbonsOrganization Development, Stories from the FieldLeave a Comment

The last post (Problems With the Creative Tension Model) dealt with some of the problems I have encountered using the creative tension model which eventually caused me to stop using it.  Last week I spent a day with a senior management team and a related problem reared its head.  This was a group of very smart, committed people.  Their organization was doing well and they wanted to continually improve.  I liked working with them.

The creative tension model is simply an illustration of how change can happen.  The problems that arise are the way that illustration is thought to actually happen, specifically the role of management within the model.  I think the concepts of vision, current reality and creative tension have value.  However, when positioned and used the way they are commonly used within this ‘model’ is where you experience problems.

Creative Tension Model

The way this model typically defines the role of senior management is to first set the vision for the organization, clearly understand the current reality in which the organization exisits and then design the systems, policies and processes etc. that will move the organization to the vision.  This is the mainstream and dominant thinking in organizations and what the role of senior management is.  And this certainly was the case with the group of senior managers I worked with last week even though they never had seen the creative tension model (this I discovered quite late in the day).

What I noticed during the day was that they talked of their organization almost as if they were separate from it, as if it existed as a thing outside of themselves and that they needed to do ‘things’ to it in order for it to perform more effectively.  I had used the model I now like to use to frame the day, which for me captures some of the essence of complex responsive processes.  My thinking was that it would help them really focus on their own local interactions and behaviors and how that would have the greatest impact on moving forward with the people in their organization.CRP Model

What I recognized as the conversations progressed was that simply illustrating this new model in place of the creative tension model did very little to affect the way the group looked at their role in the organization or how they talked about it.  From a visual perspective it looked to me like they were in a separate room, kind of like the top of a lighthouse, looking out over their organization and they had levers and buttons to push and pull that would affect the way their organization performed.  They just had to find the right levers and buttons.  And as I think back to other experiences with senior groups like this the visual image is very much the same.  Indeed for years I joined them in that room to ‘help’.

Near the end of the day, just before they were to going to decide on some moving forward behaviors I drew the creative tension model and we talked about some of the problems experienced with it.  We talked about their own experiences through this lens and the challenges they faced in using it, even though they had never seen it before.  Then we came back to the other model and talked about how it might inform those same experiences and they were able to see those experiences in a different way as well as their role in them.  It seemed to bring them back into their organization and their primary moving forward behavior was shaped around their local interactions and how they needed to act in those interactions.  It seemed very real and doable.

It was important for me to be part of that experience and see how powerful the mainstream thinking about management’s role is.  We might have made dents in that thinking but it is very powerful.  After the ‘action planning’ was done the senior person asked the group if that action would really ‘get us to where we need to be’.  I cringed a little since it seemed to be such a good illustration of mainstream thinking right near the end of a day trying to question that thinking.  But as Bruce Cockburn says in one of his songs, ‘you have to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight’.  Lots of kicking left to do I think….

Author – Tom

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