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Many years ago I realised something while working with clients on their strategy.  I realised that there were points in the strategy process and in strategy workshops, when the strategy, as explored, discussed and articulated, was clearly NOT complete.  We did not have the whole story.  Something important was missing.

Then, we would reach a point, or go through a series of points, when it began to feel, for me and for them, as if we were starting to get to the heart of their strategy, and its story.   We were getting to the real difficulties and the essential challenges of the strategy.

It took me a while to realise what it was that started to make the difference between, a strategy I did not feel was complete, and one that was starting to feel alive and real.  One major difference was that they had recognised that they had an explicit tension, or explicit tensions, in their strategy.Tenson-in-an-elastic-band-2

Until those tensions were named and explicitly, I did not feel, that we were really into the strategy properly.  Curiously, the same was true of the Directors and Executives I was working with.  Once the tensions had come out, they loosened up and the strategy discussions started to address the real difficulties and challenges they faced.

Without the strategic tensions, we did not have the strategy.  With the names strategic tensions, we were getting to the heart of the real challenges the strategy had to address.

“You missed a tension that we must name!”

Working with one client, I had identified and named four strategic tensions that seemed to exist in their strategy.  When the Executive Director came in to review the draft strategy document that named them, he said, “I like these  tensions, they are really important – but you have missed one!” and he proceeded to name a fifth.  I was delighted.  We were getting to the heart of the strategic issues and challenges.

For him, these tensions were finally naming the deeper issues that they had faced.  He knew they existed but they were hardly talked about. They were lived with.  They were to some extent swept  under the carpet (but left a great big bulge that people could trip over).

What was different was that we had made them explicit, described them and named them.  They were now out in the open. They were up front and centre.  We had brought them out so people could talk about them and explain them to their staff.  As a management team they could make the tensions clear: they  could also make it clear that people had to live and work with and despite these strategic tensions.

You see, many organisations fail to do this.  The tensions remain unmentioned and undiscussed.  As a result it is easy for people to say, for instance, “Ah but, the strategy does not resolve how we, serve existing clients, whilst also serving new customers.  Therefore it is rubbish!”.  They are left in a dilemma, and feel they have to choose one side or another.  The strategy does not help them resolve it.  The tension is there but it remains unresolved.

Having named strategic tensions that you can talk about and explore, means these issues can be explicitly addressed.

A strategic tension is not a strategic pressure

Sometimes people use the phrase ‘strategic tension’ to suggest a pressure build up against the strategy or a tension that is strategic (important).  That is not how we are using it here.  A strategic tension in this context, as two opposing sides.  Two forces pulling in opposite directions.  There is always a tension between an A and a B, as two contrasting alternatives.

The success of the strategy often relies on managing the strategic tensions

The tensions appear as contradictions.  A pull in two different directions.  An irreconcilable difference.  There are always two separate sides.  There is a natural tendency to say, let us move to one side or the other: but often that is not an option.  Both sides of the strategic tension genuinely exist in parallel.

At this point I like to quote Einstein, “The ability of a person to hold two contradictory ideas in their head and still function, is the sign of a genius.”

Of course we have tensions.  The point of the tensions is that they always exist and they are real.  That is what makes the strategy difficult and interesting.  If it was easy (and without tensions) it would not be a strategy. Operating, knowing these tensions is a necessary function of managers.

The point of having these tensions explicit, named and talked about is that you are recognising that the strategy has some apparent contradictions, yet you have to live with them and work with them.

We have found that communicating the tensions in the strategy is actually an essential part of making the strategy real for people.  It is what people know about and will discuss anyway.  Fail to mention them and people will think of the strategy as superficial and impractical.

Explain that there are strategic tensions, but that the strategy and the execution has to work with that tension and manage that tension, and you make the experience real.  You leave no excuse: be a genius, work with the contradictory ideas as a constructive strategic tension.

Strategy does not exist without tensions

Let me give you some example of the tensions.  Sometimes my clients call them contradictions.  They often are, but that fails to explain the dynamic that exists between them.  I prefer tensions because it suggests they exist together, pulling in different directions.  A contradiction seems to negate itself.  Here are some simple examples:

  • We have to serve existing clients, whilst developing new market: we cannot ignore the existing ones.
  • We have to support existing products whilst sales of new products develop:  We need to free up our best people to develop and serve the new markets, yet still fix the problems of today to retain our credibility.
  • With our key suppliers, we want to be a partner: We also need to be a disciplined client and manage those suppliers well.  being a good client and a true partner creates tensions.
  • We need to provide our suppliers with an early and clear view of the capital projects they will need to deliver, so they can plan how to deliver them efficiently:  the same time we need to spend time getting the decision right and sticking to it.
  • We are highly regulated and must comply with regulations: Yet to succeed we must develop entrepreneurship and innovation, and apply that in our business.

These are just a few examples.  In a strategy workshop with clients I make it clear we are looking for their tensions and encourage them to call them out as they identify them.  The more we have out, the more we can test the strategy

Strategic tensions are dynamic: they can change as the strategy is executed.

My strategy work typically centres around having the right types of conversations about the strategy, exploring it as a team and capturing in that strategy in various ways, including documents, strategy maps and future views (what we call tangible futures).  Any techniques I use are designed to bring out disagreement and dissent, to improve the quality of conversation, the quality of decision making and quality of execution.

Again this is why the phrase strategic tension is useful.  A tension is dynamic.  It suggests that there is a pull from both sides.  It suggests a continuum between the two points.  it suggests a balance of the forces at different places along that continuum.

The forces that create the tension can be un-even.  The pull from either side can change.  An organisation might find itself moving between various points as the strategy is executed: For instance, we still serve existing products, but start to put more emphasis on the new ones.  At some point our position might change.  Part of the strategy might unlock or release a part of the tension that the organisation has caused itself.

Using the strategic tensions to test the strategy

It is well-known that scenario planning is a way of testing your strategy.  A friend of mine once said, “You would not fly in an aeroplane that was not tested at its extremes in various scenarios.  So why would you fly a strategy that was not tested through scenarios?”   Scenarios come from the outside and test the resilience of the strategic approach in the organisation’s context.  You can use the strategic tensions to also test the strategy, in a different way.

The strategic tensions are doing something different to the potential scenarios.  The strategic tensions are more suited to testing the execution of the strategy within the organisation.  They often test the organisations ability to handle the contradictions and pressures from within the organisation that could derail the strategy.   If you have an execution plan that manages and helps to resolve these tensions, then you are likely to have a strategy that is implementable (or at least won’t get derailed early).  If you have tensions that come from the external world, then your strategy and its implementation plan must be able to monitor those external pressures and forces, and balance them.

Strategic tensions help the quality of conversation about the strategy

We put a lot of attention on the quality of conversation amongst a management team, during the strategy process and afterwards.  We seek to improve the quality of thinking, conversation and decision-making so they can learn and improve from their strategy.

Identifying and naming the tensions in the strategy is one way in which we do that.  It provides a focal point to discuss issues that are often contentious amongst the team, or will be contentious when the strategy is executed.

For our clients, identifying, naming and talking about their strategic tensions has helped them develop, communicate and execute their strategies.  From that point alone, strategic tensions are useful and no strategy is complete without some tensions.  To find out more about our work, you can contact me here.

Phil Jones


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