OUCH! In the Creative Tension Model

20151104_145813The creative tension model illustrates the basic idea of strategy  as we typically understand and act on it today in organizations. In an earlier post we found common definitions for strategy:


  • A plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
  • The art of planning and directing overall military operations and movements in a war or battle.
  • A plan for military operations and movements during a war or battle.

It is only recently that strategy has become what it is in organizations and this is well represented by the creative tension model.

creative-tension-modelThis model of strategy in organizations became popularized in the early 1990’s through two very influential thinkers and their two extremely popular books. Robert Fritz and The Path of Least Resistance and Peter Senge and The Fifth Discipline. There are many other components to these works but for now, in the case of strategy, let’s focus on this creative tension model.

There were two critical things that Fritz and Senge did with this model that was radically different than how strategy had historically played out:

  1. They set the start point for strategy considerably farther into the future and this future was idealized as vision.
  2. They defined the cause of human behavior as structures or systems.

These two points are today the mostly unquestioned foundation of strategy and organization theory regarding strategy. Basically:

You set a vision and then build the systems in your organization to reach it.  According to this model, if your vision is true enough and the systems you create good enough, you should reach your vision. This is a monstrous:


I don’t know if Fritz or Senge anticipated the amount of OUCH! this model now produces but somehow I doubt it. Fritz’s idea of the individual being the primary creative force in their life and Senge’s idea of the learning organization I think are really important ideas, well worth striving for. But grounding these ideas in the assumption of certainty I think compromises those ideas significantly.

So where does the OUCH! come from?

The way this model is supposed to work is that you first define your vision, and this is something you really want, thus it is idealized. You then move back from this vision to current reality and this creates a (creative) tension since current reality is not the same as what you want, there is a distance between them. When this was actually illustrated often an elastic was used that was attached to the vision to show that if you wanted something enough (i.e. a true enough vision) then there was a strong and natural pull toward that vision. In order to let that pull do its work you needed to create structures or systems (point 2 above) in current reality that would cause behavior that would align with the vision and you would eventually reach that vision.

There is quite a lot that doesn’t work out well here and we’ll be looking at other points along the way here but for now let’s look at four that directly relate to the two points above that create a lot of OUCH!, some fairly obvious and others not near as much. We’re going to do this over two posts so we can keep these to reasonable length. This post will look at the first two of the four important problems below:

  1. When you create a vision in this model you create an idealized picture of the future. This makes determining the time frame to realize this vision extremely hard, if not impossible.
  2. This idealized future may or may not be what ‘you’ really want.
  3. Almost all organizations will have some version of the same vision, making the exercise either meaningless or a set up for failure.
  4. Behavior is not caused by structures or systems as defined by this model.

To the first problem, when you ask a group to imagine their organization as they really want it to be; their vision, it is almost always really, really awesome.  Even when you ask them to imagine some of the problems that might be associated with this vision they will also imagine ways that they deal with these things in this future state. Pretty much nothing sucks. No one has a vision of bankruptcy, viscous conflict, high turnover etc. The point of the exercise is to establish a real vision of what you want. Well, you want awesome stuff and you are imagining so there it becomes.

One problem here is that in order for this vision to actually happen, even with things going really well would require not just incredible focus and discipline on the part of the organization, it likely means changes on the part of your competitors, customers, society and others, all aligning with your vision. Even if we stay in imagining mode the time frame for this is probably years, if not lifetimes.

Yet, when you move back to current reality and begin to plan to create structures to make this vision happen, the time frame simply cannot be that long so the group puts together plans in a time frame that is still imagining, even though it’s supposed to be reality.

In our current organizations there is no solution to this as long as strategy starts with an idealized picture of the future, a vision as we currently understand it.

To the second problem, when you ask a group what they really want, you will always get some version of what it is they are ‘supposed’ to want. In organizations it will be senior management creating this vision so the vision will be some version of what they are supposed to want for their organization. If you drop down even one level in the organization, this vision starts to lose meaning. This does not mean people don’t see it as important but it has nowhere near the power and appeal it does for those that created it.

One of the key elements that is supposed to make this model so powerful, that being the creative tension pulling people toward the vision, dissipates very quickly as you move down the organization. This is not bad or wrong, it is simply that others in the organization have other things that they really want! Vision simply is not as all powerful in organizations as it is made out to be.

Surprisingly even the way the model works admits this, although not overtly. Those who create the vision are supposed to build structures or systems to cause behavior that aligns with the vision. If the vision was so powerful the creative tension built into it should be enough. It is only powerful enough it seems for those that create it.

When I worked with the creative tension model I did dozens and dozens of these vision sessions leading to building systems that would lead the team or organization to their vision. The problems above and the ones we will look at in the next post always arose and I adjusted and reworked how I looked at and worked with the various parts of the model numerous times to no avail.

I eventually had to look at the efficacy of the model or admit I wasn’t good enough to make it work. The OUCH! in this model is that it pushes us toward the later, not the former. And frankly that is simply not good, nor is it accurate!

Comment and discussion points for this post:

  1. Have you ever felt like a failure because you couldn’t or didn’t achieve your vision?
  2. Do you agree with Fritz and Senge that structures or systems are the cause of behavior?
  3. If you have used this model, or some version of it, what is your experience?