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?

6 Responses

  1. Very thoughtful article, Tom! thanks for sharing! To start the discussion here my comments referring to your questions:

    1. A quote of Helmut Schmidt (former german chancellor) says “People with visions need to see a doctor!” From my perspective a vision in the context of strategy is indeed an idealized picture of the future in an ideal world. On the other hand Jack Welch once said ” You must try the impossible to make the possible happen!” I think there is no right or wrong as long as a company and its staff understands this mechanic.

    2. From my experience structures and systems actually cause behavior. As the behavior within work environments is driven by the culture of the business or corporation the systems and structures set the frame. To change behavior you urgently need to change habits. With no disruptive change of systems and structures no different behavior will appear.

    3. A model is never more than just a model. It illustrates and may support organisations, teams and individuals to picture the problem and develop appropriate solutions. But the model never is the solution itself.

    • Thanks for your considered response Katrin and Raimund!

      I like Schmidt’s take on vision, at least in terms of the creative tension model! I do think vision is important, but not the way it is now currently worked with as this post illustrates.

      I do not agree that systems cause behavior. In fact I find this very problematic in that it pushes us to look for a ‘system’ to change behavior rather than interaction. This dynamic I think removes us from the day to day reality of our work experience. The next post goes into this more extensively however I am delaying that post for a week as I have been on vacation and wanted to respond to the comments that have been made pus do some communicating about the last few posts so more people have the chance to read them.

      I would very much appreciate your perspective on the next post and the ideas discussed on this very issue of causality.

      To your third point, you are so right I think that a model is never a solution, but when the model is founded on the assumption that ‘it’ can create certainty, then it does become the solution. I have worked with many groups that do not know of Robert Fritz or Peter Senge at all yet they use some version of the creative tension model in their strategic work, with whatever version of the model being used assuming it will create a certain future, if it is used ‘right’.


  2. Interesting post! When working through strategy, we typically use the Pietersen Strategic Learning model. What I like about this model is that it is a continuous learning cycle. So therefore, organizations have to be willing to experiment with the vision they’ve set and continuously learn from the environment around them to determine if a change needs to be made to their vision…that’s not to say that we encourage organizations to change their vision every year, but they need to be willing to take a look at it especially if there have been major changes in their internal or external environment.

    I’m not sure that I agree that systems and structures cause behavior, but some form of them may be able to reinforce behavior. We are doing a lot of work right now in our company around behavior change, and something that we’ve had to make sure is understood is that if you expect certain behaviors then those behaviors need to be aligned with your whole system (metrics/measures, etc.).

    Look forward to reading more of your posts on this! Thanks for the insight!

    • Great to see your comment Brittany and I’m glad you have mentioned Pietersen’s Strategic Learning Model as it enables us to go a little further with this post and sets up some of the coming posts as well.

      I am familiar with Pietersen’s model and I consider it a version of the creative tension model of which there are dozens, if not hundreds. The parts of Pietersen’s model are very similar to Senge’s work as laid out in The Fifth Discipline and then the subsequent books The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook and The Dance of Change. Pietersen arranges his model in a cycle and Senge suggested the same in the process of revisiting vision and concepts such as double loop learning. I like the image of a cycle in that it represents the continuous nature of strategic work.

      I think the things that are suggested to be done in these models CAN have value, important value and you will see this mentioned in upcoming posts. Things like conducting situation analysis, trying to align systems to support behavior choices, scanning competitor and business environments all make sense and have been done long before any of these models came into being. Doing these things is good business and understanding how to do them well is important.

      Nevertheless, almost all of these models, and I would include Pietersen’s give you the impression that if you follow their model well, you will get what you want. They are founded on this assumption that power (in this case the power is in the model) creates certainty.

      What is fascinating to me about so many of these models is that the authors will say that the origins of the model came from some version of making it up as they went along, there was no assumption of certainty. Yet now that they have reflected on their experience and created a model from that, the model should now eliminate the very thing upon which it originated! That being uncertainty and a lot of making it up as you went along.

      In an upcoming post I mention that tools and models should be accessed and used but be careful since many of these tools and models will have this assumption of certainty built in, either explicitly or implicitly. If you can lose this assumption and still make use of the tool or model, I think value can be found.

      My guess Brittany is that in the use of Pietersen’s model, that is what you and your colleagues try to do. You try to reduce the OUCH! inherent in the assumption of certainty most of these tools and models contain.

      I’m looking forward to your thoughts and insights as we continue along!

    • Hi again Brittany! I wanted to add a little more to my response to you, based on an interaction with a very senior and successful leader. It has to do with the subtle and implicit assumption that these strategic models can create certainty.

      In Pietersen’s model step 1 is the Situation Analysis and then there are guidelines about what to focus on in various areas. As I have noted, I think this exercise is important. However the model often gives the impression that this ‘should’ be able to be done effectively.

      In the interaction I had with this senior leader he said to me that the environment was changing so rapidly and there were so many variables at play that it was not possible to effectively analyze what might happen, let alone what he, or his team should plan to do.

      In terms of Pietersen’s model step 1 could not be completed so the rest of the model is irrelevant. The OUCH! here is that in terms of these types of models is that the leader is seen as incompetent or not strategic. The actual reality is that the situation could not be effectively analyzed. From this perspective OUCH! is reduced even though discomfort still exists and this leader must move forward.

      What did he do? Here is an excerpt from our exchange:

      ‘we reframed our focus on the desired result and I am accepting that in the ‘fog of war’ ( tying in the military foundation of strategy) trusting the excellence of people and their ability to adapt to an onslaught of new variables is the overarching ‘strategy’ – the desired result.’

      For me, this is a wonderful example of strategy, and leadership in complex environments.

      • Thanks for the reply! This is a great example that I’d love to share with some of my clients. Completely agree that adaptability is key….especially when you are in an industry that is fairly volatile.

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