Choice vs Tension

Choice is the act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities. Tension is the state of being stretched tight. In a decision making context, this stretch is often between two ideas seemingly in conflict. A sign of great decision making is the ability to distinguish between choice vs tension.

There are many time when we need to choose between options. Picking a restaurant, credit card or car require us to choose. However, there aren’t as many situations where we need to choose as we think there are. Most decisions, especially difficult ones, require us to embrace tension rather than a choice.

Should we be push ourselves or be content?
Must we focus or should we diversify?
Should we build toward the long term or the short term?
Must we create profits or value?
Should we pursue quality or quantity?

Every one of these tough questions (and many more) is a false choice. They look like straight-forward A or B questions. But, they aren’t. Each of these are examples of natural tensions. We can’t do one of these at the expense of the other. We have to do both. So, how do we tell the difference?

A wise friend once shared – “Whenever I am faced with such a dilemma, I ask myself [very deeply] what it would take to replace OR with AND.”

We must embrace the tension.

The tension between relationships and processes

Every leader or manager faces one particular type of tension on most days – the tension between relationships and processes. The balance is hard to strike – lean one way and you  become too nice or lean the other and you become unnecessarily dogmatic.

The keys, in my limited experience, are as follows –

1. Understand what your natural leanings are. Depending on how you like to operate and what drives you, you will have a natural leaning to either being too nice or too strict with rules. Understanding this is critical to figuring out what you need to work on.

2. Communicate your expectations and follow through on consequences. Next, communicate your expectations frequently and clearly. Everyone working with you should have a clear understanding of the norms associated with working with you and what happens when they aren’t followed.

3. Treat different people differently. Finally, keep an eye out for spectacular performance. Every once in a while, you are confronted with spectacular performers who feel that the norms and processes get in the way. The more creative the endeavor, the higher the chances you will meet with rule breakers. Again, there isn’t so much of a right answer as much as there are two questions – how much of the rule bending can you make peace with? and, most importantly, at what point does the rule breaking affect the culture of the team?

As with all good tensions, what matters isn’t the answer. What matters is repeatedly asking the question, looking inward, communicating clearly and doing the best to balance the various forces at play.

It isn’t easy. Mistakes are guaranteed.

But, that’s how we get made.

Tension(Image combined from 1, 2, 3)

Tension everywhere

For managers – between structure and ambiguity.

For CEO’s – between centralization and decentralization.

For survey creators – between question rich surveys that will yield many an insight and shorter surveys that will actually be completed.

For teachers and coaches – between the stretch zone and panic zone.

For us – between life, work and everything else we want to prioritize.

… and so on.

Tension is a key part of what makes anything great. It is impossible to get something “just right” without the right amount of tension. And, getting it “just right” requires us to accept the fact that it’ll exist, embrace the idea that we won’t always get it right and keep plugging away.
tensionTension accompanies us at every step and in every decision we make. Great strategy is making decisions with a clear understanding of the tension/trade-offs involved. As with most challenging life lessons, awareness is the first step.

The tension between who you are and who you want to be

One of the fascinating tensions I observe with in myself is the tension between who I am and who I want to be. I spent between 2011-2013 largely pushing to understand myself – this meant reading as much as I could on psychology, the brain, happiness, behavior and understanding personality types via books like Gifts Differing by Isabel Briggs Myers. On the other side of this effort, I feel l understand who I am and what drives me a lot better than I used to. The benefit of this is in my slightly improved ability to understand which self improvement projects are a waste of time.

I have observed that the tension between who we are and who we want to be is one of the most difficult challenges we face in our lifetime. We aren’t fit vs. we want to be fit, we don’t read vs. we want to be the sort of person who reads a lot, we don’t spend time with our family vs. we want to be “family” people, etc. We’re constantly faced with this tension.

There are 3 lessons that have stuck with me (in case you are wondering why I always do 3, it is not because there are 3. There are many more than 3 – I just do my best to boil it down to the 3 most important lessons.) –

1. Your greatest strengths are also your biggest weaknesses. If you are a great thinker, it is likely you think too much. If you are a great doer, it is likely you do too much. You can’t look at weaknesses in isolation. In cases like this, I find it best to think about it as a balancing act. You won’t ever fully conquer that demon but, with enough self awareness, you can keep it at bay. So, as you get started, pick your self improvement projects carefully.

2. Understand why you want to change. Are you changing for yourself or because you want to be liked/popular? Changing for someone else is futile. At the end of the day, this tension is between you and the person who looks back at you in the mirror. If the two of you don’t feel it is worth it, it is not going to happen. That doesn’t mean you can’t change something about yourself to become more likable. You’ve just got to believe in it yourself.

3. Change projects are best taken up one-at-a-time over long periods. The biggest reason self improvement projects fail is because they’re taken up wholesale after an “aha” moment (usually new year’s day). There is NO way you can create sustainable change in one shot. It is a gradual process and you have to keep that perspective and be patient with yourself.

This isn’t a 3 day battle, it is a lifelong war. That said, it is definitely a war worth fighting consistently and well.