Peak performance cultures maintain a felt sense of creative tension. Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, says creative tension is the "gap between vision and current reality. It is a source of energy. If there were no gap, there would be no need for any action to move towards the vision."
Creative tension can create better ideas and outcomes. This tension causes focus and a deep-seated desire to resolve the tension thus catalyzing heightened activity and maximum production. You can feel the sense of excitement and even anxiousness.
Too little creative tension causes the organization to feel flat, compliant, and lethargic. Too much creative tension can take a sense of anxiousness to a point of anxiety.
Peak performance leaders pay close attention to the amount of creative tension being experienced by their people and they know how to increase or decrease this tension as appropriate.
There are three essential building blocks of creative tension. To establish and maintain creative tension there must be agreement on the following:
1. Current reality.
Your people must have a collective understanding of the way things are today. They need to be brutally honest and recognize the absolute truth about their current situation. Shared understanding of "what is" generates a sense of authenticity and credibility.
2. Desired future.
Your people must have a shared vision that moves and inspires them. The vision must be articulated in such a way that people are motivated to do whatever it takes to realize it. The vision is less about employees or the company.
A powerful vision is about the world and the opportunity to help cause this great world you desire. You will need to decide what needs to change about the current reality to achieve this vision.
3. What's at stake.
In addition, and critical to the establishment of healthy creative tension, people must be convinced that something important to them is at stake if they don't resolve this gap. Your people must have a shared and felt sense of consequence should they not rally and achieve this vision as well as a clear understanding of the benefits of moving ahead.
Creative tension exists when the people of your company sense a gap between their current reality and their articulated vision.The gap created calls forth action.The benefits of establishing and maintaining appropriate amounts of creative tension are:
Have you ever woken up at night plagued by thoughts of unfinished tasks at work or around the house? Perhaps you've had a nagging feeling after an argument with a significant other or a colleague about things you should have said and you keep replaying the discussion in your head.
Your response to these loose ends is known as the Zeigarnik effect, named after Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist and a member of the Berlin School of experimental psychology. Zeigarnik discovered that people remain unusually focused on aspects of their life that are incomplete. And they hold this heightened focus until the act is complete. This focus can help increase productivity and push you toward that desired future.
Increased ingenuity and innovation.
The desire to eliminate the gap and resolve the creative tension drives the people into a 'whatever it takes' mentality thus rendering them more open to new ideas and non-linear thinking.
My consulting firm manages creative tension through complete transparency. Everyone in the company knows what and why things are happening. We acknowledge shortcomings and celebrate successes. Our leadership team has weekly meetings with senior team members, informal feedback delivery during one-on-one meetings, and monthly discussions with the larger employee population so our staff has a full sense of how we are doing and what is required and expected to get us to our collective desired future.
Every employee, no matter their seniority, understands how their contributions and actions directly impact our ability to achieve our mission. This two-way dialogue and transparency helps our team stay focused and motivated.
Walk through the halls of your company and take the temperature of the creative tension. Is it too much? Too little? Just right?
Engage with people to see the degree of agreement they share in describing the current and desired future and what's at stake if they don't succeed. Through conversation, do what you need to in order to establish and maintain optimal creative tension.