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?

2 Responses

  1. I opt for there being an interplay between all types of causality. Give 10 people a problem to solve on their own and they will come up with 10 different solutions. To me, that scenario is the interplay of environment / rules of the problem (formation) and rational thinking. This assumes I’m correctly understanding Formation theory. If they solve the problem as a group, then it seems all three are at play.

    Are vision statements very similar across all for-profit companies? Google’s vision statement is “to provide access to the world’s information in one click.” Do most simply want to get better at the stuff shareholders care about?

    I do believe in shared vision.

  2. Kris, thanks for another comment! It’s taken me a bit to respond but I’m here now!

    A few posts down the road I explain a bit further my perspective on causality so that might clear things up a bit. Basically though I land on a single ’cause’ and then a number of ‘influences’ on behavior. For me, the important thing with strategy is that current theory tends to blindly focus on formative causality so we don’t even think or talk about it!

    As for vision statements, there will be some kind of variance depending on industry etc, but overall they are some version of ‘excellence’. Google’s vision would be shared, in some fashion, by most organizations providing information on the web. We all want our web information in one click! What this vision means in terms of day to day interaction, is for me what is important so why not focus there? Google may indeed incorporate their vision into day to day interactions but many organizations do not do this so for me the variable is not vision, it is day to day intentions and interactions.

    As far as shared vision goes… I tend to gravitate more toward that vision can be shared rather than shared vision….

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