Tension for change is an important concept for business leaders looking to improve performance in their companies.  It is a mechanism to create the energy and motivation needed to mobilize human beings into action.

Mobilizing people into action is the work of leaders.  In their book The Leadership Challenge, the authors Kouzes and Posner propose that,  “leadership does not exist without people to energize and mobilize to achieve a desired outcome”.  In business, results only occur when people take action.  It’s not about what people know, what skills or knowledge they have, it’s what they do that matters.

But how can we constructively create tension for change?  In 2012, Canadian Olympian Silken Laumann wrote about tension for change.  She writes, “the gap between where I am today and where I want to be is a gap that creates the tension for change”.

The same applies in many business situations.  In my career I had the privilege of working with two world-class sales trainers – Murray Janewski and David Holt – who taught sales skills to literally thousands of Canadian sales professionals.  Both espoused the idea that successful sales professionals were those who create tension for change in the minds and hearts of their prospects.  Through asking good questions, a sales person helps a prospect understand:

  1. their current situation
  2. their desired future state
  3. how the salesperson’s product or service will close the gap between the two.  In a selling context, that tension triggers the decision to buy.

Why change matters

In Good to Great, Jim Collins states that “the enemy of great is good”.  When things are ‘good enough’ why change?  But it is exactly this attitude, according to the Collins research, that gets companies into trouble.  They coast along operating in status quo until one day they wake up and realize that some market force has left them behind.

Highly effective leaders understand this, and know that a company that is not changing is probably declining over the medium to long term. Being a firm that has the capability to change efficiently, one that can be nimble, is one that has a strategic advantage.

But change needs to be directed.  Change for change sake is fruitless.  Constructive change in an organization is only that which moves the company towards a desired future state.

The Recipe for Leaders

Creating constructive tension for change starts with an inspiring vision, a “brightness of future”.  Leaders must establish a clear image of what the future will be like for people currently working in the business.  Jim Collins calls this the painted picture – a description of what it will be like for all employees when that future state is reached.

Brian Scudamore did a great job of this with 1800GotJunk based in Vancouver.  He not only created the painted picture, but created a “dream wall” at his head office that any employee could write on that described what it would be like working for the company in the future.

The second step is an honest, transparent view of the current state – the brutal facts.  Leaders must openly discuss both the good and the bad of the current situation.  This includes internal factors (skills, expertise, financial situation, unique processes, proprietary information, etc.) as well as external facts (brand position, goodwill in the marketplace, changing customer preferences, competitive situation, etc.).

The difference between these two anchor points – the current state and desired future state – creates the tension gap.  It’s like two ends of a stretched elastic that causes tension in the rubber.  The captured potential energy – like in a stretched elastic – is the energy to move people.

Further, motivation is both a push and a pull.  Dissatisfaction with the current state creates energy to push people towards the vision, while the desirability of the future state is the pull.

The third and final step is the glue that holds it all together.  That step is communication.  Great leaders continually talk about both the current state and the future state.  Research tells us that employees want to work for leaders who are honest, forward-looking and inspiring.  This can be  embedded in every discussion about where the company is today and where it is going.

Go ahead and create some stress

We tend to think of “stress” as a negative.  But in fact studies into human behavior prove that a moderate amount of stress is the key to optimal performance. Savvy business leaders know this and intentionally create constructive stress in their organizations by consistently talking about how to get from where they are today to the desired future state.