Sensing and Processing Tensions


Part of business transformation (digital transformation) is moving from a hierarchical, command & control culture to more of a distributed and independent culture.  Having less formal rules in place requires a new approach to recognizing and addressing issues.  I’m calling those issues tensions.  A tension is something that’s out of balance, or not harmonic.  In music theory, harmony refers to multiple musical notes that work well together; that have a pleasing effect.  Dissonance is the opposite - ‘a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements’.  So, when we’re talking about tension we‘re casting an extremely wide net.  Tension may come from clumsy customer facing business processes (friction), from poor integrations between business systems & software, from interpersonal dynamics issues, from org chart alignment issues, from just about anything. 

This post is about how to recognize tensions, how to deal with them in a consistent manner and how to do this in a distributed environment. 

Distributed control within a fractal structure


A colleague of mine has a fascination with the hexagon structure of honeycombs.  He uses the honeycomb illustration frequently to communicate elements that are both independent and have some level of consistent structure.  That holds true here.  If we build guidelines for sensing and processing tension, we can push that out to business units, to geographic locations, to squads or tribes of teammates that are working out of the bounds of an org chart on a particular initiative.  A pliable process promotes adaptation across use cases.


Let's talk about sensing tensions.  We just gave examples of the tensions that we're talking about.  Some of those are symptoms of problems & some are unrealized opportunity.  High performance leaders build a keen sense for these.  That's a skill and a mindset that has a high correlation to your level of engagement.  You can't be on autopilot and have a keen sense for organizational tensions.  This sensing can be referred to as perceptual acuity.  I first read about that in Ram Charan's book, "The Attacker's Advantage".  He  speaks about the ability to see around corners; to see the bends in the road before others do.  This skill is critical building out a responsive organization.  


Once we've built out our sensing tension chops, what do we do with them?  To me, there are 2 steps in processing tensions.

#1.  Capture

We need to capture the tension as soon as we perceive it.  Take a page out of the agile playbook and build a backlog of perceived tensions.  The tension backlog should include the observational narrative of the tension, the potential impact (severity), and the affected organizational area.  For organizational areas, I use:

  • Customer experience
  • Team experience
  • Operational excellence
  • Strategic differentiation
  • Financial

I can pretty well fit most tensions into one of these buckets.  Back to the backlog...  Pick a tool that works for you, and use it -- Jira, Asana, Trello, Google docs, etc..  Make sure the tool is easy to use and that it can be shared with the team. 

#2.  Governance

Now that we're sensing tensions and capturing them, it's time to build some structure around processing them. 

  • Prioritize the backlog on a regular cadence.  In Agile, this is backlog grooming. 
  • Align backlog items with team roles and distribute them. 
  • Discuss the items with the team.  Get feedback.  Look for excitement.  Look for champions.  
  • Take action on the items that have the necessary organizational buy-in.  
  • Monitor (and celebrate) your progress.  

Organizations that build in a culture of sensing and processing tensions tend to become higher performing vs. their peers, and the employees enjoy an increased level of empowerment.  If you're looking for a path to becoming a more responsive organization, try out this rubric with your leadership team.  Commit to it for a quarter, and I bet you'll some traction.