The Tension in Tension: Leveraging Potential in Complex Adaptive Systems

There are many kinds of tension that play out inside any human system. In this blog post, Royce uses the HSD-based definition of tension to 1) identify four particular types of tension; 2) describe their sources and potential impacts; and 3) suggest ways leaders can use Pattern Logic and Adaptive Action to leverage tension for the greater good.

In my humble opinion, tension is a very misunderstood word. Even when I went to look for quotes and an image to represent this blog post, the dominant themes I found portrayed tension as negative and a thing to be avoided at all cost. In fact, in my brief exploration, none of the images and only a small percentage of the quotes pointed to tension as positive, or even neutral. Despite that, I do believe Liebman’s quote rings true. Tension is a fact of life, and one sign of maturity of any system is the degree to which it accepts that fact. In those mature systems, leaders who recognize the tension and its source can use Adaptive Action and Pattern Logic to leverage that energy for the good of the system.

In an online dictionary, (, one definition of tension is, “balanced relationship between strongly opposing elements.” This definition is closest to the way we define tension in Human Systems Dynamics. We refer to tension as the energy generated by a system as it navigates and negotiates differences. As tension of difference builds over time, system conditions shift to relieve that tension, leading to system change. Some changes damage or stunt the system’s growth or productivity. Other system changes can release positive, productive energy and propel the system into higher levels of functioning.

This deep understanding of how patterns emerge in self-organizing systems is what Glenda Eoyang calls Pattern Logic.  In HSD, we use Pattern Logic to study this process of emerging patterns, and then take Adaptive Action in iterative cycles of inquiry to influence that tension of change.

A system’s resilience relies on its ability to embrace and leverage its own tensions to find the best fit for survival and productivity. Exploration of tension in any system—individuals, groups, teams, organizations and communities—is one key to ensuring growth and resilience. In this post, I share four definitions of tension and suggest ways to leverage each for the good of the system. As you review the post, please think about a system that matters to you and consider how these dynamics play out for you.

Tension as fear or anxiety

This is how most people think of tension first. It’s the cold knot of dread we feel when we experience something new or threatening. This can be triggered in many ways, but at its very heart, it is a physical and emotional response to the difference between what is known and what is unknown. That tension is  further shaded by our memories or our imaginations.

  • We come up on a new experience and have no way of understanding or predicting what will happen. We have no memories to inform us, and we cannot imagine all the possibilities that may come to pass.
  • We step on something soft and squishy in the yard in the dark of night, and our imaginations tell us it is a snake or some other frightful animal.
  • We have an unpleasant or uncomfortable experience at the dentist as a child, and subsequently every visit to the dentist is fraught with fear and anxiety because of our memories of that first visit.

In a system, anxiety and fear can be debilitating if the system freezes and is unable to respond. On the other hand, low-level anxiety and fear can also serve as a “warning” to prepare the system to pay attention to its environment. It can also help identify points of weakness or vulnerability.

Leaders can leverage this tension by attending to the noise in the system to identify sources and impacts of fear. That listening can inform decision making and action when it is used to shift those conditions and create new patterns.

Tension as boredom or malaise

We often think of boredom or malaise as “nothing to do.” Consider, however, the irritability or impatience that results when you have nothing to do. This is the tension that emerges in the system when there are too few significant differences, and your expectations or preferences deal with that shortage.

  • Children (both individually and as a group) become irritable and grumpy when they perceive that there’s “nothing to do.”
  • We sit in meetings or training sessions where nothing of import seems to be happening, and we begin to feel who feel “fidgety” and impatient.

In systems where there is too little difference, members become bored. There is greater opportunity for them to disengage and lose their focus on the contributions they make to the system. This can be about limited differences in day-to-day work, too much similarity of experience, or even a shortage of different ideas or stimulating work.

The resulting energy of tension can be leveraged by recognizing and addressing the need for increased diversity. There is a caveat, however. Differences interjected into the system should be meaningful. While hiring more or new people may alleviate boredom for a time, if they do not bring new ideas or contributions to the system overall, old patterns of malaise or boredom can re-emerge. Seeing and understanding patterns of disengagement can inform the leader’s Adaptive Actions to draw others into contributing to the good of the whole.

Tension as creative drive

When what we know, remember, or experience is significantly different from—and less interesting or useful than—what we can imagine, we feel the antsy anticipation of creative tension. We feel the need to move toward the new perspective or idea. We can build on the old ideas to fuel system improvement.

  • Artists see new colors or images in their ecology and can’t wait to replicate them through the expression of their chosen media.
  • Writers hear or think of a new turn of phrase or idea that needs telling and can’t wait to begin building a new story or poem to share that idea.
  • Leaders read about someone’s new approach to supervision and uses that to improve his/her interactions with employees.

At the same time creative drive helps us push toward new ideas and applications, it can also take attention away from current reality’s focus on today’s challenges.

To leverage creative drive in a system, leaders can encourage the expression of those ideas, intentionally providing time for dialogue and exploration. This opens a space for the tension while holding the current focus in check.

Tension as innovative ideation

When creative tension drives us to look for and design new tools or approaches, we have moved into the tension of innovative ideation.

  • Practitioners who encounter long-term challenges in their field feel the tension between what they can do and what they imagine can happen. Some of them find pathways to new approaches for old problems.
  • Families with long-standing disagreements can look beyond past memories, using their imagination about what’s possible to find ways to connect and overcome history.

This manifestation of tension can be dangerous is too much focus on innovation draws energy away from today’s focus. Innovative ideation can also create new tools and approaches that move the system forward. Leaders use Pattern Logic and Adaptive Action to focus the energy of innovation, identifying and developing ideas to carry their system into the future.

Tension is the energy that drives change in human systems. Pattern Logic and Adaptive Action help you leverage tension to build resilience and sustainability wherever humans live, work, and play together. Consider how you can take advantage of the tension that drives your system. Be in touch and let us know what you learn!

Royce Holladay

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