Strategy and Power

20151104_145813Power gets a fair bit of attention in organizational literature. Power gets talked about a lot, typically in the abstract. However, one of the things current and typical understanding of strategy tends to create is very little meaningful day to day interactions regarding power. When you eliminate the bottom arrow of the right loop and the left facing arrowhead of the gesture and response in the interaction model, interaction about power becomes severely constrained.

Interaction Model

So power, one of the most complex, influential and meaningful experiences of organizational life tends to be hidden from our day to day interactions, even though its impact is felt daily.

Day to day as it plays out for all of us we simply don’t talk much about power in organizations! We don’t talk about how power is being used or why. We don’t talk about how it is allocated, its impact or even if we, as individuals have power at all. The impact of this when it comes to strategy is significant. Perhaps more significant than we can imagine.

For the purpose of this work the following definitions of power are being used:

  1. The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.
  2. The ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality.

Types of power that are often seen as relevant within organizations and which focus on the first definition above are listed below:

  • Legitimate
  • Reward
  • Coercive
  • Expert
  • Referent

Legitimate is the power that exists in a position or role in an organization. Reward is power that enables someone to reward another. Coercive is power that enables someone to punish another. Expert is power based on accepted knowledge or experience in a certain area. Referent is power based on some type of valued subjective affiliation with a person.

All of these types of power are relevant and important. When interaction about these types of power is constrained something interesting happens. Two of the types of power noted above tend to be seen by people in the organization as most prevalent.

Legitimate and coercive.

In earlier posts it was noted that when the bottom arrow of the right loop and the left facing arrowhead of the gesture and response are eliminated, strategy, for everyone that hasn’t been involved in its creation translates to:

Do what you’re told and keep your mouth shut!

This is the worst of legitimate and coercive power. Yet if we are constrained in talking about power this is what many people seem to think is happening in terms of power in their organization.


It’s not hard to imagine the impact this has for those of us who have not had a hand in creating the strategy for the organization. It also takes an awful lot of energy, time and effort for those that did create the strategy to try and overcome this impact. Keep in mind this dynamic is created by the way we typically understand strategy and organizations in general. As a result, this dynamic is seen almost as a normal pattern in organizations and one that naturally must be dealt with or ‘managed’.

This is one of the reasons I think there is so much content and interest being generated regarding things like leader authenticity, openness, emotional intelligence and so much more. And also why so many senior leaders see this content and interest as more or less a waste of time, even though they may not be able to effectively articulate why.

The reason why is that these concepts such as authenticity are supposed to overcome the very worst of the application of power and they cannot do this. On their own, things like authenticity are of course valuable. But applied as a ‘technique’ to overcome the impact of the worst applications of power their value is not only gone, but everyone knows it’s a technique rather than a genuine attempt. It’s almost insulting!

Perhaps the most damaging part of all this OUCH! is that it is accepted as normal in organizations! In the absence of interaction regarding power, people tend to think leaders primarily are using legitimate and coercive power in order to move strategy forward. And leaders think they must overcome resistance to moving strategy forward by creating systems and structures which should cause this resistance to disappear. Neither this perspective on power nor the approach to deal with this perspective may actually exist, but it tends to be a very common and problematic pattern of interaction and understanding in our organizational experience.

It is not easy to deal with this, to reduce the OUCH! As long as we believe that power can create certainty the interaction model is compromised so that day to day interactions regarding power are very problematic and thus avoided. To change this, do we start by changing the belief that power can create certainty or by taking a leap into bringing forward interaction and conversations about power?

I think we’re probably better off starting with the latter since the real power of leadership can help initiate these conversations and perhaps more importantly these conversations acknowledge the second definition of power noted above; the ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality.Self Manager

This definition is a representation of the model of self management illustrated by Dr. Freedberg and focused on power. It illustrates an additional type of power that each of us possesses; choice.

Keep in mind, the typical way strategy is seen to be implemented; through formative causality, dismisses this type of power! When we acknowledge that choice is present for all of us, conversations regarding power begin to make a lot more sense, especially when it comes to strategy in organizations.

It is actually a little hard to imagine what conversations about power might ‘be’ like in organizations, especially when it comes to strategy. So let’s pose that question for the comments and discussion part of this post.

Comment and discussion question for this post:

  1. What do you think conversations about power, focused on strategy or its implementation would be like in organizations if our understanding of strategy was altered to be more in line with the previous posts?

Reducing OUCH! In Strategy con’t


The last post focused on the first of four quite typical and normal things that happen once the organization strategy has been established or revisited:


  1. The vision gets forgotten.
  2. Emergent issues are dealt with by patterns of interaction that have been historically established.
  3. Significant projects resulting from the strategy get acted upon through the allocation of considerable resources and become change projects.
  4. Less significant projects resulting from the strategy get allocated to specific people with little resources and often fail or get put aside.

This post will look primarily at point 2. Points 3 and 4 more or less get folded into our look at point 2.

In the last post it was also noted that effective strategy, strategy without OUCH! exists in those four points above. We are not trying to avoid these four points in order to do ‘good strategy’, we are trying to make them more obvious and conscious and to take them seriously.

We have defined strategy as a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim. And also the art of that planning. We tend to think of plans as fairly static and consistent over periods of time. In reality strategy is planning as a process of movement. To be strategic is to focus coherently on this process of movement, day by day within the organization. This brings us to point two, which is where senior people, because of their very real power can have the most influence. Both strategically for the competitiveness of the organization and within the organization itself.

I think that this area is where strategy is at its best and also the most challenging. Exactly where senior leadership should focus.

Influencing patterns of interaction to deal with emergent issues.

In the interaction model the left loop represents patterns, typically patterns of interaction that are established over time and often become quite stable. The right loop represents movement forward. These two loops are linked by interaction, day in and day out. Since the left loop can become quite stable it can dramatically affect the right loop, keeping movement forward very similar to what has historically occurred in the left loop.

This is what the quote attributed to Peter Drucker – ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ – was describing. In terms of the interaction model what this means is that with no change in the day to day interactions people have, movement forward will mirror the past. If you want to be strategic, to influence the process of movement forward the focus is on interaction. This places the majority of strategic work firmly in the present, a major difference from the typical way strategy is currently understood.

Interaction Model

You may have noticed that not much is being said about what is often described as the ‘what’ of strategy (the specific course of action a strategy should  lay out for the organization) and how to determine what this specific course of action might be. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The variability of specific plans of action (the what) is enormous and is not the focus of this work. If senior leadership requires specific help then they need to access that appropriately.
  2. Today the static ‘what’ of strategy is much less important than a focus on emergent opportunities.

If we place the majority of strategic work in the present, on our interactions, the importance of mission or day to day intentions becomes clear. What these things become are the filters by which interaction can be passed, every interaction.

You may recall in the last post I noted the three day to day intentions we have in our small organization:

  • Building relationships to create opportunities.
  • Differentiation in the marketplace.
  • We need all of each of us.

With each interaction, with each emergent opportunity we can ask ourselves how these intentions are informing what we choose to do, which one(s) may be more or less important in this situation, and our rationale for these choices.

This is strategy, centered in the present, focused on day to day interactions.

Since context is so important there is neither a final and right answer to how those day to day intentions should play out nor a definitive answer what they mean. This then establishes the bottom arrow in the right loop and the left facing arrowhead in the gesture and response of the interaction model firmly as part of strategy. It is these two parts of the interaction model that typical understanding of strategy eliminates.

With this focus much of the OUCH! in strategy dissipates. Perhaps a better word is that the OUCH! is transformed. It will be transformed often into heated discussion, outright conflict, a need to think through the rationale of our choices using these filters and quite often defend that rationale.

The critical strategic role of senior leadership is to encourage and engage in those interactions. Not just in their direct team but inside and outside the organization; daily!

In essence, strategy IS these interactions.

Reducing OUCH! does not mean everyone is happy and things are wonderful. It does not mean success is guaranteed. What it does mean is that strategy work becomes much more real, interactive and present. It becomes challenging in a very real sense.

Consider what this means for senior leadership, the people considered most responsible for organization strategy. The way strategy is now understood mostly eliminates the interactive nature of strategy for senior leaders as noted in earlier posts. They set the strategy and move to implementation. Any challenge to the strategy or response other than agreement is highly problematic.

Without the constraints of certainty in strategy work, interaction, with all its challenges becomes the norm.

I wonder what that might look like? I wonder what character might look like? I also wonder if we’re so used to the OUCH! in strategy and the benefits it provides that our current patterns of interaction are so established that we’re simply happy to keep things as they are?

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. What do you think strategy like this would look like?
  2. In many ways, strategy like this would require higher levels of self management throughout the organization (see this post). Do you think current understanding of strategy has compromised levels of self management?
  3. Could your organization accept an approach to strategy as described above?




Reducing OUCH! in Strategy

20151104_145813We’ve focused on a number of problems associated with the typical way strategy is understood in organizations. Let’s take a look at how we might be able to reduce the OUCH! in organization strategy and we’re going to do that over a couple of posts.

I don’t think there is another area where the belief that power can create certainty is more entrenched than organization strategy. So reducing the OUCH! is a large task at an organization level. And since public perception mirrors how we understand organizations, reducing OUCH! in publicly owned organizations goes beyond the organization itself.

In earlier posts we focused on the creative tension model as the mostly unquestioned way of looking at strategy and how to make it work. Two key aspects of this model are critical in producing OUCH!:

  1. The start point for strategy is far into the future and this future is idealized as vision.
  2. The cause of human behavior is structures or systems.

Quite simply, the more that can be done to alter or eliminate these two aspects, the less OUCH! there will be. This tends to be easier said than done. The patterns of interaction that have created a belief that these two things are a necessary part of strategy are very well entrenched.

Nevertheless everyday in organizations we try and avoid the OUCH! caused by the typical way strategy is understood so what will be suggested in these posts is not so much new, as making more obvious and acceptable what we already do.

To consider what might be done to alter or eliminate the two points above let’s look at what really happens in organizations regarding strategy. After the retreat by senior management to create, or update the strategy for the organization, very typically:

  1. The vision gets forgotten.
  2. Emergent issues are dealt with by patterns of interaction that have been historically established.
  3. Significant projects resulting from the strategy get acted upon through the allocation of considerable resources and become change projects.
  4. Less significant projects resulting from the strategy get allocated to specific people with little resources and often fail or get put aside.

Pretty much, business as usual and even those significant projects coming from point 3 above are often painfully obvious as needing to be done anyway. Business as usual except now we feel guilty about not making something ‘transformational’ happen.

So what’s the big deal with strategy you might ask? Good question.

There IS no big deal with strategy the way it is typically understood and acted upon in organizations today. It simply doesn’t work any better than business as usual. There is no evidence indicating organizations are performing any better than at any other point in time, regardless of the lofty visions or well crafted systems to achieve those visions.

Strategy without OUCH! exists in those four points above. What we now see as problematic actually IS strategy! In those four points above the 2 key aspects regarding how strategy is understood to work are altered or eliminated. It is also in those four points above where influence can be more effectively applied if we take those four points seriously.  Let’s adapt and look at those points and see what strategy might look like, where we might influence and how we can alter or eliminate the concepts of vision, structures and systems.

Forget about vision.

It’s almost hard to believe I typed that! After working with the idea of vision for more than a decade and then putting it aside for now another 15 years I am quite convinced that the idea of vision has very little impact on strategy. At least how vision is typically understood within strategy today.

If you forget about vision you no longer have an idealized future or destination; which is a good thing.  You still need something in addition to those strategic projects to move forward with however. I think two things are effective and I gravitate more to the second one of these:

  1. The mission of the organization.
  2. The day to day ‘intentions’ of the organization.

By mission I mean what the organization is supposed to be doing. The idea of mission has been around for a long time and I think fits well with what strategy meant before being burdened by certainty. If the focus is to be excellent at what the organization is supposed to be doing, the organization will be better positioned to act on emergent opportunities. As well mission is applicable to everyone in the organization.

By day to day intentions I mean the overarching focus of what we do in our day to day interactions. This overarching focus should inform how we move forward and approach our interactions as well as be coherent with success, however defined, and how that success can be influenced. As an example, we have three intentions in our small organization:

  • Building relationships to create opportunities.
  • Differentiation in the marketplace.
  • We need all of each of us.

We do not have a vision or a mission. We assume that by focusing on these three intentions as our interactions play out day to day, we can most effectively influence our success, in terms of how we define success (more on this in other posts). We assume that by focusing on these intentions we have an effective strategy.

What we do is an example, you may do something different. If you are trying to alter or eliminate the idea of an idealized vision and the problems associated with that in strategy, you need to have something that informs how movement forward is influenced, and can be applied, day to day by as many people in the organization as possible.

Whatever ‘it’ is, it needs to be applicable, practical and meaningful to as many people as possible when applied to their day to day interactions. ‘It’ is also a process of movement, something that gets discussed continually as different contexts emerge. There is never a set or final definition, simply further interaction about what ‘it’ might mean in the current context you are dealing with.

And when you really think about it, that’s what we do in organizations now, shortly after the flip charts from the strategy session are rolled up and tucked away. What we don’t do is take that ‘what we do in organizations now’ seriously and try to influence it in a conscious and obvious manner. We assume what is wrapped up in those flip charts will do it for us.

If we can legitimize what we do now, if we can make it more obvious, more intentional, more day to day, a considerable amount of OUCH! disappears from our strategy work. It also gets more challenging; a good trade off I think and what the next post will focus on.

Comment and discussion points for this post:

  1. If the idea of vision was eliminated from organization strategy, what effect do you think it might have?
  2. What strategically informs your day to day interactions?



Individual Strategy – A Thinking Tool

20151104_145813The last post looked at an individual perspective on strategy with the start point being a focus on excellence. It was mentioned that technique or tools that enhanced this focus were worth accessing, with a caution to be wary of the assumption of certainty being embedded in the use of the technique or tool. This post is about a thinking tool that I have found of value in this area of individual strategy. I tend to gravitate to thinking tools as I find they are of benefit to me across numerous contexts. I can use them all the time! I also like thinking tools that are very simple to remember but carry significant meaning. For me, this ‘tool’; model really, fits these criteria very well. In many ways it has influenced my view of organizations at a very fundamental level and made sense of my own personal experience in organizations. It also acknowledges rational causality (individual choice) universally within the realm of strategy and I think we are in dire need of that acknowledgement.

What typical thinking about strategy establishes, through its focus on formative causality as the cause of human behavior, is that those in power, those that create strategy are the only people whose behavior is caused by rational causality, individual choice. Those in power have the power to choose and then they develop the structures and systems that will cause the rest of us to follow along, basically with no choice.

I see this to be extremely evident now in our almost fanatical focus on leadership, be it in organizations, politics, religion, sport; almost anything. We crave the hero or heroine leader who will light the way for us, to bring us to some version of the promised land through their leadership.

What this does is establish a very clear hierarchy which all of us are very familiar with in organizations:

Manager managee

You can substitute different words such as leader/follower, coach/coachee, teacher/student or others. Since our focus is organizations and strategy we will stick with manager and managee. There is nothing inherently problematic with the dynamic this model depicts. Until it gets overlaid with an assumption of certainty created by those in power through formative causality. When that happens, as it now has, almost unconsciously so, numerous problems surface, the most fundamental being that the managee is thought to exist in a world without individual choice. The person at the top of the model above holds all the power of choice; they are accountable for our performance, our careers, our engagement, our motivation, our compensation, our status, our vision, our success and eventually our perspective.

If you take even a cursory look at what ‘competencies’ exist for managers and leaders today, almost every one of those points noted just above will be included as what they need to ’cause’ in and for their managees. The manager is supposed to create certainty for their managees. If you are at the bottom of the model above you don’t really have to manage much at all, your manager is supposed to manage it all for you!

Subsequently we are seeing less and less self management as we put our faith and trust in the assumption that those in power can create certainty for us.

And the more those in power fail at this (inevitably so) the more OUCH! we feel.

An individual perspective on strategy can alter this. An image Dr. Freedberg used to illustrate self management was:

Self Manager

In this image the Self Manager and the Managee is the same person, with the self manager representing the very real equality that exists in terms of choice in organizations between those with more power than others.

Basically the model represents a dynamic where the manager gestures to the Self Manager, that part of us that critically assesses that gesture and then metaphorically passes this critical assessment and subsequent choices made about that gesture to the Managee who then acts on that choice which would then be a response to the manager.

What Freedberg said was that this model was nothing more than a true picture of the dynamic of interaction between people of differing levels of legitimate power in organizations. Current organization theory and understanding asks us to eliminate the Self Manager, asks us to bury our belief that we have individual choice.


If we use this model, if we take it seriously all those accountabilities noted above are our own. We are ultimately accountable for our performance, our career, our engagement, our motivation, our compensation, our status, our vision, our success and perhaps most importantly our perspective.

Of course others have influence on all of the above, important influence both enabling and constraining but they are not the CAUSE of the above. This is not some romantic or mystical call to ‘reclaim’ our right to choose. It is simply what is! An awful lot of OUCH! is created by trying to deny this ‘what is’, by trying to deny that we have individual choice. And when we do this, the storm of blame guilt and shame continues, of our own causing.

The start point for all of us to consciously and actively engage in this ‘what is’ is with an individual perspective on strategy. Beginning  with a choice to focus on excellence, with a short term focus and to pursue the opportunities that emerge.

In other words to be individually strategic.

Comment and discussion points for this post:

  1. Who do YOU think is accountable for all those things noted above?
  2. If you are a manager of others do you have formal performance objectives / accountabilities for any of the above FOR your managees?
  3. What do you think is the state of self management in your organization?

Strategy – An Individual Perspective

20151104_145813Most of us work within an organizational strategy that we had no involvement in creating. There is nothing wrong with this, it makes sense and most of us are quite happy to contribute to that strategy. It also means we are subject to the impacts of that strategy, good, bad or neutral and we have very little control over that as well. We also have very little control over the strategies of our organization’s competitors, customers, governments and the myriad other things that are part of our organizational experience.

However we do have a fair bit of control over one of the most important things of our organizational experience – ourselves. Ok, that may sound an awful lot like complete rational causality but please just let it ride for now… transformative causality is important here too….

The really good thing with this situation is that we can take an individual perspective on strategy. What is even better is that individual perspective can be much more closely aligned with how strategy was treated and acted upon before it became so severely constrained by certainty. As we have noted in previous posts that approach was:

The start point was excellence, the time frame was quite short and the opportunities were more opportunistic than planned.

Another important point to remind ourselves of is that certainty was not assumed. I cannot overemphasize how important this is at an individual level. It gets us, as individuals out from under this heavy weight of certainty and it is only at an individual level that we have the actual power to make the choice to get out from under this weight.

In order to look a little closer at an individual perspective on strategy let’s split the approach in bold above into its three components:

  1. The start point is excellence
  2. The time frame is quite short
  3. Opportunities are more opportunistic than planned

The start point is excellence.

From an individual perspective strategy starts with excellence. Trying to be the very best we can be at what we do, regardless what that is. It’s pretty simple, personal and individual if we don’t burden the effort with certainty. It’s nothing more than doing our best to become the very best we can be at whatever we do.

Historically this was the start point of strategy, so by choosing to do this we, as individuals are being strategic. It’s also the one thing we can do that we have the most control over that will buffer us against all the normal uncertainty in our organizational experience.

Whatever tools or techniques we may need/want to strive for excellence should be accessed but be cautious that most of those existing techniques or tools will be founded on the idea that power creates certainty and the power you need is located in the tool! If we discard that assumption many techniques and tools have value. More than anything however, this is a choice, an important intention in the interaction model.

Interaction Model

The time frame is quite short.

Strategy is process of movement, it is interactive. If we choose an intention of excellence it feeds back into our interactions which means others are involved in that intention of excellence through our various gestures and responses. This keeps our intention centered in the present, a shorter time frame. We are then creating a pattern of behavior for ourselves (the left loop) that is informed by our intention of excellence. And since we are more focused and serious about our day to day interactions (our gestures and responses) than anything else we are smack dab in the middle of transformative causality.

Opportunities are more opportunistic than planned.

With an intention of excellence seen as a process of movement driven through our day to day interactions opportunities WILL emerge, positive ones, negative ones and neutral ones. That is what transformative causality does. This is strategy at its best I think, the capacity to recognize the opportunities available and then choose which to act on. Interestingly, it is also at the individual level where strategy, understood like this is most possible. It is at an individual level where we can set aside the typical ways of understanding strategy and align it much more closely with our actual experiences.

Keep in mind that the above does not guarantee success, however defined. It does mean we are actively engaging with our day to day interactions and taking them seriously, informed by our intention of excellence. The entire interaction model will be at play, in all its paradoxes. It also means we are doing the one thing, the one thing we have the most control over that helps us accept and who knows, perhaps even thrive in the uncertainty we exist in.

There is much less OUCH!

Above I mentioned the use of tools and techniques to help us focus on an intention of excellence. I’m going to devote the next post to one conceptual, or thinking tool that I have found very valuable in recognizing personal choice (rational causality) into our organizational experience which is so dominated by the assumption of formative causality. Then we will move onto strategy at group and organization levels.

Comment and discussion points for this post:

  1. Much current content on individual strategy mimics the thinking of organizational strategy; set a distant goal and do not waver in your will to achieve it. Do you think this is a good approach to individual strategy?
  2. What is your individual approach to strategy?


OUCH! Character is the New Strategy


Some time ago I was meeting with someone after a very cool meeting with a small group of people and she asked me, ‘Why do you think character is getting so much attention these days?’ I had never thought through my response before but what emerged was:

‘Because strategy has failed.’

It was one of those times where you think you’ve said something really important or completely stupid and you kind of hope the person you are with doesn’t decide which, too quickly. It’s also one of those times that illustrates transformative causality playing out during interaction, in this case between two people.

Since then I have thought quite a bit about that statement and while I might not state it quite the same now, I do think in essence it is true.  In many ways it simply represents a common, almost inevitable outcome of founding typical organization theory on the assumption that certainty can be produced by those in power.

That outcome is when the theory (or more accurately the models, tools etc. that represent it) fail, blame is assigned to either:

  1. The practitioner of the model or tool
  2. The model or tool being used.

The theory itself is rarely in the mix of being scrutinized.

Strategy however is a pretty big tool to be blamed.

In the last post I mentioned it took one colossal economic crash to begin to question strategy. That was 2008. There of course have been other economic crashes since strategy as we understand it became indisputable in organizations but none this large and none with current organization theory so firmly entrenched.

In 2008 thousands of businesses failed worldwide. None of those businesses had failure as a vision or as part of their strategic plan. In addition the majority of the thousands of senior people in those organizations had been educated or trained at Western business schools and likely had been influenced by a popular business guru. These gurus, for the most part promote typical understanding and theory of organizations (they must, otherwise we would have different theory and understanding)!

As noted in point 1 above the typical pattern of behavior when a business fails is to point to the incompetence of the senior people (the practitioners of the tool of strategy) of that organization either strategically or in the implementation of their strategy. Either way the cause of failure is incompetence.

In 2008 for this to be true, there had to be an epidemic of incompetence to a degree never before seen! It was highly problematic to blame so many people for being incompetent, especially if some of those people did their work in some of the most respected business institutions in the world!

In light of this you might think there would be some questioning of the theories on which organizations are thought to exist (including the theories of strategy). Unfortunately not much of that has happened in the past eight or so years. So what did happen that has allowed us to hold onto these theories founded in the assumption that power creates certainty?

  1. Blame a relatively small number of people as the cause of the whole crash and label those people as ‘bad’.
  2. From there shift the focus of the cause of business failure to something much more subjective than incompetence.

That something has become character.

This is an interesting, convenient and I think scary development for sustaining faith in current organization theory, including strategic theory. Interesting because it is brilliant in its support of current theory, even though it is highly unlikely anyone or any group actually came up with the idea. It is a wonderful example of emergent, socially constructed meaning that could not have been predicted.

Convenient because once you shift to a more subjective means of supporting current theory, you no longer need as much objective evidence to prove that theory; enough power of whatever kind will suffice (i.e. gurus, business schools, public opinion).

Scary for two main reasons. One, no longer is objective analysis of the viability of current theory nearly as important. Two, failure, which is almost guaranteed at some point if we believe that power produces certainty, now has a deeply personal cause.

No longer are you just incompetent if you fail, you have a flaw of character!


While we see this demand for character most clearly established at senior levels in organizations because of the power those people have the dynamic filters down throughout the entire organization.  Remember this dynamic is caused by a belief that certainty can be created by those with power and this effectively eliminates the bottom right arrow of the right loop and the left facing arrowhead of the gesture response in the interaction model.

Interaction Model

The bottom arrow in the right loop represents adaptation, the potential altering of intention through interaction. The left facing arrowhead is part of the dynamic of interaction where meaning (however difficult) emerges.

So let’s put this together. We now have a subjective and very personal cause for the success of the strategy of the organization; character. Now success is even more personal, now publicly personal. If you are the senior people in an organization you have enough power that you should be able to create certainty; certain strategic success.

So when that group sets the strategy for the company they are now being judged to be both competent and of good character; good people.

The pressure is enormous and the last thing that group wants to hear from anyone is that the strategy needs real adaptation. The last thing they want to hear is a response from someone that questions their competence or goodness.

To be very blunt for most people in organizations, eliminating the bottom arrow in the right loop and the left facing arrowhead in the gesture response translates to:

Do what you’re told and keep your mouth shut!

I sometimes think that this may be the cause of things like low engagement scores almost across the board in organizations, the dramatic increase in mental health issues in the workplace, escalating rates of turnover and so many other things that we say overtly or covertly that we so dislike about our organizations.

Perhaps we’re just trying different ways to run from the OUCH!

As character becomes more established as a measure and cause of strategic success I don’t think things will get much better.

I would be the first to say we need character in organizations, throughout the organization. Character as strategy, founded on the assumption power creates certainty is not character at all; it’s simply another tool in the service of current organization theory.

The next posts will look at what we can do with this thing called strategy, at all levels of our organizations. Perhaps how we can reduce the OUCH! rather than run from it.

Comment and discussion points for this point:

  1. Do you agree with the above?
  2. What do you think is the impact of character in organizations?
  3. Do you think character is in the service of creating certainty?

OUCH! In the Creative Tension Model con’t


In the last post we identified two key additions/changes to the thinking regarding strategy that were popularized by Robert Fritz and Peter Senge:


  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.

We also identified four problems associated with these changes:

  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.

The last post looked at the first two problems and this post looks at the last two.

As I mentioned in the last post, I worked with this model for a number of years, doing dozens of strategy sessions beginning with vision. It is extremely energizing for a group to focus on vision. I clearly remember the passion of people and the emotional engagement that the group felt. Sometimes we would work late into the night getting that vision statement just right. There were passionate arguments about single words and what they meant and just as passionate arguments about the systems that would be created to reach this vision.

Keep in mind, that with this model, vision, something you truly want is the driving force of energy that will draw you toward that vision. Then you have to design the systems in your organization in such a way that this energy, this creative tension can do its work and pull you toward your vision. If this is done correctly you reach your vision. At its heart this model is founded on an assumption of certainty.

Over time, working with this model it became evident that groups, especially senior teams all created some version of the same vision. Each vision described some description of success that included financial success (explicit or implied) and an upstanding method of accomplishing that. This is problem 3 above.

If everyone has mostly the same vision you could argue that none of them really mean much. Of course everyone wants to be successful, so what’s the big deal about vision? However, I don’t think this is the biggest OUCH!. The biggest OUCH! is that if everyone wants the same thing, not everyone is going to get it, in fact many, if not most will fail.

The creative tension model, almost by definition will result in blame, guilt and shame much more often that it will result in the actual realization of the vision so passionately created. And the primary reason for this monstrous OUCH! is that the model is founded on the assumption of certainty.

The idea of vision, creative tension, looking and changing current reality are all legitimate and important ideas and areas of focus. Base these ideas on an assumption of certainty and much of the value is severely constrained if not lost altogether.

The fourth point above is interesting I think and has been the source of numerous and passionate arguments. Given that, there is I think, ideologies at play and ideologies at some level are subjective so no amount of arguing resolves them….

The interaction model is based on ideologies and theories of social construction. These are relatively new theories of human behavior compared to psychological theories and if you click on the link you will immediately get a sense of this newness and the struggle to define what it is. Nevertheless I think the following definition ‘works’.

Social construction maintains that human development is socially situated and knowledge is constructed through interaction with others.

Most current theories of understanding organizations are rooted in some version of psychological theory. Social construction and psychology are quite different in terms of how they understand human behavior.

Interaction Model

Where the interaction model most clearly represents social construction are in the gesture response dynamic (George Herbert Mead) and the dynamic ‘forms and is formed by’ in both the left and right loops. A lot of this is founded on the work of Ralph Stacey and the ideology of complex responsive processes (note: this link is to a rather long article from some time ago but I think it does a decent job of outlining the basics, especially the first part of the article).

Lots to go on about here but in terms of strategy, the creative tension model and point 4 above; one of the key things about the interaction model and social construction is the cause of human behavior.

Without jumping way into the deep end of philosophy we can identify three relevant types of causality for human behavior when it comes to strategy:

  1. Formative
  2. Rational
  3. Transformative

What Fritz and Senge popularized and what has now become almost unconsciously accepted in organization theory including strategy is formative causality. Basically formative causality says a structure or a system causes behavior. Most of nature is founded on formative causality (with one major exception!).

An easy way to think of formative causality is to think of an acorn. Within that acorn (which is the structure or system) is the form of an oak tree. If you plant the seed and nurture it you get an oak tree and nothing else, the result is built, or formed into the seed. What Fritz and Senge were saying was that if you built the right structures or systems you would get predictable behavior; behavior that would align with the vision and let creative tension do its work.

Rational causality is based on choice or the idea of free will which lands squarely in the lap of us humans (the exception noted above). Rational causality says the cause of behavior is rooted in the choices we make. So even if a structure or system might influence our behavior it cannot be seen as the cause of our behavior. Cause and influence are two VERY different things.

The interaction model is primarily based on transformative causality.

Transformative causality is at the heart of social construction. Basically what it is saying is that the cause of human behavior is interaction. Choice, the hallmark of the human individual is seen as caused by interaction. Just let that sink in a bit because how you make sense of the world and organizations changes, radically, if you believe this to be true.

I do believe this to be true and I struggle almost every day with this. Everyone reading this has grown up and been ‘socially constructed’ to believe we live in an individually, choice created world, yet everyday our experience illustrates this is not so.

However, back to the problem at hand. The creative tension model is founded on formative causality, structures or systems. This means rational and transformative causality only has the possibility of existing for those people that create the structures or systems that will cause the behavior for all the rest of us. Those at the top of our organizations.

At this point it’s not just OUCH!; you should be royalty pissed off!

Pissed off because the way we typically understand strategy means you have no choice (unless you have created the strategy), you are just a pawn in the game of those in power that are causing your behavior to march toward that all important vision.

You know this is simply not true!

The creative tension model which is the unquestioned foundation of strategy in organizations today collapses with a very simple look at causality of human behavior!

It’s taken about a generation and one colossal economic collapse for this to be realized. The next post will look at  what is beginning to take its place. It is even scarier! Then we’ll look at what we, all of us, can do about this OUCH!

Comment and discussion points for this post:

  1. What do you think causes human behavior?
  2. What do you think is the impact of most organizational visions being very similar?
  3. Do you believe in shared vision?