Tension Tracking

Tension tracking is a set of questions designed to force the leader to seek and consider perspectives of other potential supporters and use that insight to initiate conversations with these individuals that will link the initiative with their challenges. The assumption is that each manager within an organization faces a different set of conflicting interests and goals (the tensions). The manager is constantly moving among these conflicting interests and mediating between them. A good manager does not get anchored in one position but is able to move back and forth between the conflicting interests. Tension tracking helps a leader consider the tensions facing a given manager and use that to help reinforce the desired behaviors. It is little more than an exercise in perspective taking with the operating assumption being that each individual faces different sets of tensions.

The tensions that these managers, and others like them, experience do not leave them in a stable equilibrium position of nicely balanced forces. Rather they find themselves constantly pulled from one side of the tension to the other. Their reality is one of constant flux as various pressures ebb and flow. Tension tracking identifies these tensions and places your initiative within this context.

Tension Tracking Steps

Step 1: Identify key tensions.

Generate a list of tensions that pull your focus in opposite directions or that operate as competing interests when you are forced to make decisions. Start by thinking about decisions you make on a daily or weekly basis. When you cannot think of more tensions, shift your time horizon to a monthly or quarterly basis. After this, shift to a yearly basis and, finally, to a five- to seven-year basis. Table 1 gives examples of some common tensions, but these are just examples from previous groups I’ve worked with. It is quite possible that some of these tensions are not tensions in your organization. For example, I have worked in several safety-first companies where the safety culture is so deeply ingrained that they do not see a tension between safety and cost or safety and speed. The consistent, strong emphasis on safety has muted that tension within their culture.

Table 1: Work Tension Examples

Quarterly goals vs. long-term investments
Global strategy vs. local market needs
Customer demands vs. team capability
Consistency vs. specialization
Safety vs. cost
Quality vs. speed
Fixing short-term problems vs. innovating for long-term improvement
Pricing/profit vs. volume
Work/life balance vs. demand to do more with fewer people
Revenue per customer vs. customer centricity
Manufacturing/service delivery vs. sales
Employee development vs. limited resources

Step 2: Identify roles connected with one side of the tension.

Pick one or two tensions that consistently generate the most stress as you work to accomplish your objectives. Identify the roles within your organization (or with external partners, if applicable to your work) whose interests most closely align with one side of the chosen tension.

Step 3: List benefits of both sides of the tension.

Take the perspective of each of the roles identified in step 2 and list the benefits that are derived from taking that perspective.

Why focus on benefits and not drawbacks of each side? Our goal is to understand what drives people in a given role to prioritize certain tasks and discount others. We have a bad habit of seeing the benefits of our perspective and the drawbacks of someone else’s perspective. By focusing on the benefits, we develop clarity around what motivates others, and just as importantly, we start to build a common understanding. By focusing on drawbacks, we frame the tension in terms of intractable differences, and we begin to subtly shift into an “us versus them” mindset anchored in differences.

Step 4: Connect actions with benefits on both sides of the tension.

Examine your list of benefits from step 3 and make reasonable, realistic connections between the action you hope to sustain and some of those benefits.

I emphasize “reasonable” and “realistic” because it is easy to rationalize causal links that are creative rationalizations but not real. Make a sincere effort to find the link between your actions and some of the benefits.

If you find it impossible to connect your initiative to any of the benefits on one side of the tension chart, this is a clear indication that your initiative is closely aligned with one side of this particular tension (for example, rolling out a global branding strategy is action that is sympathetic to the global strategy side of the global/local tension). If this is the case, you now have some clear insight into why and from where you will get resistance to this action. You can choose to modify your initiative to make it more balanced between the two tensions. Alternately, you can prepare your local leaders to address the conflict by openly acknowledging that this initiative is designed to address global strategy goals and prepare local leaders to openly discuss the tension inherent in the global/local competing priorities.

Perspective-Taking as Habit

Identifying new champions and supporters is essential if a behavior is to be sustained. Bringing in the support of new people is the only way any action in an organization will carry on and gradually become embedded within the culture. Expanding the number of supporters requires the leader to be strategic and thoughtful in engaging others. Each individual within an organization faces different challenges, different interests, and different sets of tensions.

This description of tension tracking is adapted from Chapter 9 of Unquestioned Brilliance. For more on this and other strategic leadership techniques see Unquestioned Brilliance: Navigating a Fundamental Leadership Trap.