The Fundamental Difference Between Thriving and Dying Organizations

Tension doesn’t have to always be dangerous. The best organizations thrive on it.

If you get your future of work perspectives from traditional media you might be under the impression it’s simply the story of “removing hierarchy” (whatever that means), firing all the bosses, or embracing radical transparency. Sure, some of those things are happening and are related to the future of work — kind of like how flour, eggs, and sugar are parts of a cookie — but it’s also kind of missing the larger point.

What seems to be lacking from the conversation I’ve seen about new ways of working and organizing is an appreciation for what it means to change a pervasive, inevitable, and destructive organizational experience into a pervasive, inevitable, and fundamentally constructive experience that makes organizations much better.

Enter, tension.

Tension, The Great Distractor

Most organizations spend an inordinate amount of time and money trying to avoid, mitigate, maneuver around, or generally “manage” tension. There’s tension at the individual level (“What’s his deal? Why didn’t he finish the project on time? Why is Mary being so mean to me?”), at the team level (“What are the designers even doing over there, anyway? The engineers are clueless.”), at the organizational level (“Why are we prioritizing this type of customer when I know there’s an opportunity over here instead? Did you hear what our competitor announced today?…we’re so screwed”).

Human beings are awesome at perceiving tension and most of the time we think of it as being pretty negative.

Here’s what makes tension even trickier — the smarter the people in your organization the more tension you’re bound to experience. Smart people are excellent at seeing how things could be better, at seeing the failings of their colleagues (and themselves), and recognizing problems (i.e. tensions) across the organization. Really intelligent people are also great at identifying opportunities (a more positive type of tension).

Unfortunately, there’s almost never a clear avenue for taking those perceptions and making them into something useful. Instead, they get bottled up and ignored until they are eventually manifested as frustration and apathy.

Since traditional organizations rarely have a mechanism for dealing with tension they try to avoid it by never exploring the edges of what’s possible. They may try to mitigate it by teaching people how to “resolve conflict” or how to have more emotional intelligence. Or maybe they will downplay the signals being received from the market. Or they try to ignore it because dealing with tension feels like a distraction from the real work that needs to be done. Organizations have a ton of tactics for trying to keep tension to a minimum but very few, if any, of those tactics involve transforming it into something useful.

If tension were some kind of rare environmental aberration then trying to avoid it would be a reasonable course of action for an organization. But trying to avoid tension is like trying to go for a run in a thunderstorm and avoid raindrops — it’s not going to work and is kind of a silly idea to even begin with.

Tension doesn’t go away when it’s ignored or avoided. It just builds and builds and festers below the surface until something releases the pressure all at once.

Tension, The Great Creator

On the other hand, the best organizations have figured out ways to process their tensions at every level into productive changes in their structure and/or culture. In a system like Holacracy it’s through the process of monthly governance meetings across the organization and the transparent sharing of roles and policies. The exact details of how it happens doesn’t matter but truly self-managing organizations will always have a process for taking information from the environment (which is really what a tension is) and turning it into something useful.

They don’t do this in a begrudging or frustrated way — they celebrate and seek tension because when this process exists and is respected tensions shift from an annoying hindrance to the lifeblood of continuous organizational growth.

Tensions are signals from the environment that organizational changes need to be made. Most organizations need to pretend they don’t hear those signals because they have no way to metabolize the message into a change in the way they’re structured or operate. In fact, traditional organizations are getting hit from two sides — on the one hand they aren’t able to use the information they’re getting from the environment and on the other hand the tensions themselves are draining and distracting.

This is the fundamental strength of a self-managing organization with a robust and participatory system for processing tensions — it takes perhaps the most pervasive negative force they could experience and flips it into an extremely positive and necessary force of for getting better consistently over time.

The best organizations are engines for transforming tension into productive growth.

If your organization isn’t productively channeling tension into organizational change it means that tension is hiding somewhere below the surface. Meanwhile, the organizations that truly get it are channeling their tensions into changes that are making them healthier and better adapted to their environment.

Which one would you rather do business with? Which one would you rather work for? Which one do you want your kids to work for?

Which one do you think is going to survive in a complex, uncertain, and rapidly changing world?


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