Your values need tension (no, not the ‘these are bullshit’ kind).
Sticking with values, I want to expand on an element of Aristotle’s golden mean from my last article. I call it productive tension.
Look under the covers of successful organisations, and you will find tension at work. No, I’m not talking about “this place sucks” hostility.
You can most commonly find my kind of productive tension within your organisation’s values. And that’s the perfect place for it to live. Because they are how you do things, make decisions and respond to fantastic struggles and fortuitous moments alike, values benefit from the energy demanded by some push and pull.
Aristotle’s golden mean is alive with tension. The ongoing reorienting of a thing back to centre from too much or not enough is what helps avoid a value’s dark side.
But why stop there.
Take the tension beyond merely protecting and make it productive. Achieve the energetic equilibrium that can exist in the middle. Think accelerating around a bend. Too much, and you’re in the ditch facing backwards. Not enough, and the car feels sloppy and sluggish. Just right and you sail around the curve and accelerate smoothly onwards.
Getting under what the value means can produce productive tension within and between them. It can be either or both.
One client deliberately built productive tension into a value using the boundaries of what it is, isn’t and when it goes too far. By capturing the duelling sentiments of ‘discipline and play’, they ensured the value never slipped into dark side territory. And at the same time put productive tension to work every day.
A compelling example of productive tension between values comes from outdoor apparel company Patagonia’s ‘Build The Best Product AND Cause No Unnecessary Harm’.
The best product requires harm. All manufacturing does, even when practised using recycled and renewable resources and fairly paid makers. Cause no unnecessary harm is the counterpoint requiring them to continually look at causes and removing as much as possible from the way they operate while still building the best product.
The active, ongoing tension between the best product and unnecessary harm is a driver for the way Patagonia does business. Note this isn’t a trade, rather one balancing and influencing the other in equal measure.
Even values that aren’t obviously at odds can generate productive tension. For example, last year, Coles promotional plastic toys landed on the backlash side of social sentiment.
And while their’ ‘customer obsession’ value suggested keeping the previously popular giveaways, another value — ‘responsibility’, pointed to their demise. The productive tension resolved into a new approach. Keep the idea but change the promotion into a series of ‘Little Treehouse’ books made from FSC certified paper.
If you’ve done the work to understand your values, navigating their productive tension is how you progress and get better at holding onto that (golden) meaningful balance.
Think about your organisation. Where’s your productive tension? What elements within your values push and pull in equal measure?
See you next time.