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Strategic Tensions

You don’t chose one or the other, you dance at the balancing point

In 1995, wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park. A carnivorous predator might not conjure feelings of warmth and connection, but after this keystone species was nearly eradicated in the early 1900’s, the park’s landscape - and even waterways - were reshaped, and the entire ecosystem was at risk and in steady decline. While the bunny and baby deer appeal to our inherent sense of protection and belonging, the wolves occupied an essential place in the natural order too. Their absence threatened the system at large, including - perhaps counterintuitively - even those cute little bunnies.

Healthy and balanced ecosystems achieve a level of homeostasis because they are comprised of competing and balancing forces. We see organizations as a similar set of managed tensions. They are constantly evolving and changing by dealing with strategic and/or resource tensions. When we look at organizations, these tensions can appear throughout - in strategy, operations, culture, and leadership. Ultimately, these tensions exist inside each of us… but that's for a future post,

At the strategy level, we often encounter organizations with unacknowledged, unknown, and/or unmanaged tensions. These strategic tensions are not inherently “bad”, but when unmanaged they often lead to misalignment, redundancies and resource conflicts.

At Volition Partners, we use the idea of balancing tensions as a key to unlock misalignment within executive teams. We analyze their positioning and strategy to identify a set of polarities, where it's unclear which end of the spectrum is the place to rest. By painting choices along a spectrum, we allow for nuance and specific dialogue about WHERE and HOW the team wants to compete.

In the example below, you can see how this plays out conceptually. We worked with a client situated in two camps regarding how to go to market after a recent merger. You can see how the different camps wanted to position themselves in different ways, due to their historical biases. For some, it was obvious that the market opportunity was for high-touch, curated, customized offerings, represented on the far right of the spectrum. But for others, they acknowledged that their dominant capabilities were on the left side, in a platform-esque offering.

Through our support, they ultimately navigated to a shared view. They did this through healthy debate, *not* of their personal positions, but of the underlying inherent tensions. They dialogued on the realities and implications of the strategic options, factoring in real-time customer data (which we helped capture), and they looked past old frames of reference. The merged companies ultimately landed on a new position - a bit closer to the left - that reflected a stronger option than either starting position.

The dance was to balance where the market opportunity was, with what the organization was capable of delivering. ...not unlike the dance at Yellowstone between managing a ‘violent predator’ and supporting a natural food chain. You don’t chose one or the other, you dance at the balancing point.

We do a lot of merger integration work. Realigning leaders on the nature of these tensions and how to balance them is a frequently overlooked part of integration. In our experience, this is why most mergers fail to capture the anticipated value. Our process is successful because it goes beyond getting to a great ‘answer’, and accomplishes the essential task of aligning leaders.

Within the Volition Toolkit, we have ways of helping clients find the balancing point while aligning leaders - not just in strategy, but in their operating model, their cultural values, and in their leadership expectations. Leaders that accept organizations as dynamic systems, and are able to identify and manage their tensions, are more likely to create a thriving and competitively differentiated businesses, that are resilient and agile.

Stay tuned for future posts on how to identify and manage dynamic tensions in Operations, Culture, and Leadership.

As for those wolves in Yellowstone? Within two decades of their reinstatement, the population of beaver, elk, bears, moose, foxes, otters, and rabbits grew dramatically too.


Is your team or organization navigating strategic tensions? We can help!


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