I learned the concept of creative tension from Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. It is probably the best business book I have ever read. I think folks that can see the big picture and practice the systems thinking Senge describes in his book will live their lives and lead their organizations fundamentally different and significantly more effective than those that don’t.
This is a powerful concept. If we are genuinely striving for excellence, then there will always be a gap between “the way things could/should be” and “the way things are”. How we deal with that gap is critical.
These gaps create tension in our lives. We don’t like the feeling that we are not what we could be or should be; consequently, we are highly motivated to close these gaps so that we can return to a state of satisfaction with ourselves.
The first way to close these gaps is simply to avoid them. If we don’t continually strive for excellence, for something different and better, then we never have to live with this tension.
Another way to deal with the tension is to pull the goal down to meet our current reality. We talk ourselves into believing that things are “good enough”, and even if they are not, there is certainly nothing we could do about it anyway.
The best way is to learn to live with the creative tension as we pull ourselves and our organizations UP toward the goal. The challenge is that it takes TIME to close these gaps – sometimes a lot of time. There are some things in my life that I have been working on for decades. I’m better than when I started, but I still have a way to go and the goal is worth my continued investment of time and effort.
If we are going to strive for excellence, we have to learn to live with creative tension. It’s the only way to continuously learn, grow, and improve. We owe it to ourselves and to the people we have been given the privilege to lead.