Structural Tension

6/18/99 - Jack Harich - Go Back

Structural Tension is a very simple high level planning process. It's especially suitable for better true group creativity. It tends to reduce the effect of individual egos, increase the power of collaboration, and more quickly leads to better plans.

See the book "The Path of Least Resistance for Managers" by Robert Fritz, 1999, for the full story on how to use "Structural Tension" as a very productive, lightweight planning process.

I'm excited!!! After years of working on "defined processes" such as OOAD and SEI CMM, ka-boom! In this book I found what appears to be a higher level abstraction. Rather than a better defined process, it's something that takes the very core of a business, its people, and unites them into a group, thinking and working in the same focused direction. It's a whole new way of defining how to achieve goals.

Quotes From Managers

We start with a few quotes from the book, by managers using this technique:

"I don't think our process planning was very efficient when we started to use a structural approach. But when we started applying it, we didn't say anything to anyone. We didn't give it any grand introduction. We just started using it, and what it did immediately was eliminate a lot of talk about irrelevant things. When we started talking about what any particular goal was, and clarified reality, our planning time was cut by a third." (page 38)

" of the big improvements is that before we did a lot of fluff". (page 38)

"Swedforest is not the same company it was two years ago, and the most fascinating and positive thing is that once you start working with the structural approach there is no way back to the old problem-solving, situational thinking that is so self-defeating." (page 39)

"From a management point of view, the people working with me are extremely focused in terms of where they are going and where they are. They are involved in the thought process, and there is a very different energy in the group when we're using Structural Tension. Everyone is all on the same track, and they really understand it. Not just the work, but they really understand the thought process - how things fit together, how they work as a whole." (page 47)

Step 1 - Define the Goal

From a high level managerial perspective, a business engages in three steps - concept creation, planning and execution. Given a 30,000 foot level concept, how can we best develop a high level plan to achieve it? The first thing Structural Tension does is capture the concept as a goal. For example:

Ho hum, nothing new here. But then again, notice how we have captured the concept as a very focusing goal for us to achieve. It's very important to reduce wild, inspiring visions to a discrete goal you can nail on the wall (in other words, memorize). This is just like the Nutshell Vision in the Mini Process. We suggest a single unifying goal, with subgoals as needed.

Another goal example is: "Dominate the xxxx portion of selected yyyy markets quickly before market windows close." Note how this thinks at a very strategic level. Substitute your own words for xxxx and yyyy, such as "thin client" and "educational". Viola! We have a configurable, reusable goal.

Step 2 - Create Structural Tension by Defining Current Reality

The usual next step is to formulate a plan to achieve the goal. This is where Structural Tension deviates. It says let's first define our "Current Reality". For example:

The "tension" introduced by current versus future reality is powerful. It commits to writing what we intuitively consider as we struggle to build a plan to achieve a goal. We are no longer solving the "How to get to point B" problem. Instead we are solving the "How to get from point A to B" problem. This is similar to gap analysis.

Current Reality is those elements affecting reaching the goal or needing change in relation to achieving the goal. Describing this correctly is just like defining a problem fully. As we all know, clearly defining a problem is often over half the battle. Why? Because the more clarity and relevant input data we have, the easier the solution. In the case of current versus future reality, the clearer the differences are, the clearer how to bridge the differences is. Bridging the difference essentially follows "the path of least resistence", as this diagram shows. The curves are detours around problems or rejected paths.

In fact, if one spends sufficient time defining the Current Reality and Goal super clear, a lighting bolt can strike. The planner(s) can see the best solution path in a sudden flash of insight. This is creativity in action. Anything that can make it easiser is just plain wonderful....

Good Structural Tension automatically generates the path of least resistance.

Step 3 - Resolve Tension by Creating the Action Plan

Now that we have Structural Tension set up, and we're just sitting around waiting for lightening to strike, we better do something with all that pent up energy. It goes into a broad Action Plan, giving a chart illustrating the entire ball of wax. For example:

The Action Plan becomes your project schedule high level tasks or milestones. After you've added the dates, elements can be sorted by date, or they may be grouped and sorted per group. The above plan is obviously in progress.

The great advantage is this chart shows all pertinent elements. It's all there. Thinking can occur faster and more correctly. Group discussion especially is easier, because information sharing occurs more automatically and intuitively as the chart evolves. A sense of relaxation emerges as the tension is resolved by the plan. That's when you know you're done, or at least on the right track.

Doesn't this chart beat a 5 to 50 page tome with bullet lists that is really hard for everyone to grasp? This is once again the power of reducing the key content of a document to one page. There are usually documents to back up the chart, but they are very secondary, and may not even occur during initial planning.

Can you imagine a group of people in a room with a projector, furiously honing the chart(s) to perfection? Can you imagine them later going to their offices and cubes, and posting the chart on their walls, and looking at it frequently? Can you see the chart being pulled out in subsequent meetings? Structural Tension Charts make the entire process of planning and doing so, so, so much easier.

Good Structural Tension automatically generates the path of least resistance.

Other Steps

Those are the steps in the book. They are wonderfully intuitive, mostly due to the chart serving as a crystal clear project model. (your project's GUI :-) But to make things more rigorous, and capture what goes on in people's heads, here's an example of how you can improve this process. It uses the same steps presented above plus three new ones.


Objective (with book steps in bold)


Define the Goal


Create Structural Tension by Defining Current Reality


Identify and Resolve Tension Resolution Risks


Develop the Tension Resolution Strategy


Resolve Tension by Creating the Action Plan


Validate the Action Plan

These steps are very iterative. For example as you resolve risks you can piece together some of your Strategy and Action Plan. As you get detailed with your Action Plan, you can manage newly discovered risks and refine your strategy. Current Reality and the Goal can change as the Action Plan takes shape. It's important to keep everything consistent.

Note that you still use the same Structural Tension Chart as the main device. New steps 3 and 4 are straightforward. New step 6 takes a little explaining:

Step 6 - Validate the Action Plan

The question arises, "How do we know this will even work?" Nothing new here. Standard Risk Analysis in step 3 is used. An advantage is one can start with the assumptions in the Current Reality, using these as givens that are true.

What about "How do we know this is the best plan?" This is much harder, but the chart gives us some advantages. Each Current Reality element is in tension with the goal. How does each plan element resolve each tension? Is there really more than one best way to resolve the tension? If there is, perhaps the tension is not fully or correctly defined. After all, if lots of quality time is spent in defining your Structural Tension, the plan will naturally follow the path of least resistance.

This step is really just a final "reality check". If you've managed your risk well in step 3, step 6 should be a breeze.

Good Structural Tension automatically generates the path of least resistance.


On pages 79 to 87 is a handy checklist for your Structural Tension Chart, condensed here:

Your Goal

1. Is this the result your want?
2. Did you quantify the results whenever you could?
3. Did you translate comparative terms (more, better, etc) into their actual goals?
4. Did you focus on getting what you want or only on eliminating problems? The former is preferred.
5. Did you describe the actual results you want or just the process for achieving those results? For example, a goal should be "IT Task Force in Place" rather than "Create the IT Task Force".

Your Current Reality

1. Does each goal have a Current Reality for that goal?
2. Did you include what's relevant?
3. Have you included the whole process?
4. Have you translated assumptions and editorials into objective news reports? For example, "We tried and failed miserably to improve our production efficiency" should be, "We do not know how to improve our production efficiency", which is so much more clear it leads right into a solution.
5. Did you "tell it like it is" without exaggeration?
6. Did you state what reality is, rather than how it got to be that way?
7. Did you include all of the facts your need?

Your Action Plan

1. Does the Master Chart include each major aspect of the organization and business? (Master Chart is your top level one for the company)
2. Can you answer yes to this question, "If we took these steps, does it look likely we would accomplish our goals?"
3. Are your descriptions of the action steps accurate and concise?
4. Does every action have a due date?
5. Does every action have a person accountable?


We have only briefly covered the subject. Please, please see the book for more. Part One, the first 88 pages, is all you really need to read. The rest is filler material with occasional usefulness. This implies how simple the technique really is.

We really can't guarentee all this produces a better plan. Planning is more art than science. But we do know:

Remember the "If you don't know where you are going, any road will do" advice? Well, without Current Reality it becomes "If you don't know where you are, you have no idea what roads are available". With a Goal and Current Realility, it becomes "If you know where you are and want to go, there's probably one good route".

Current Reality items can be divided into "Changable" and "Facts". These can be labeled as C and F on the chart. For example "Only one UHR expert" is a Changable because we can train more. "UHR Study Group has first meeting 6/21/99" is a fact.

An item can appear to be solid but could be improved. For example "Open Source route underway" looks like a high level Fact. But how well is it underway? Investigation might change this to "Open Source route started but weak", which is an obvious Changable. Don't stop the Current Reality definition prematurely, or you may experience the futility of garbage in, garbage out. Don't stop the other steps too soon either.

The Action Plan is a first pass and doesn't fully resolve the tension. For example, the BA Tutorial would not be available when the study group starts meeting. How will they learn it? And where's the risk analysis for deciding the plan sequence?

This is all drill downable. Subgoals can become Goals in a lower level chart. Action Plan items can become Goals in a lower level chart. Current Reality items can be achieved Goals from previous charts. If your chart is becoming too large or muddy, you probably need to move elements to lower or lateral drill down levels. This allows one to think at the correct level and sphere of abstraction. In the book drill down is called "telescoping". Here's a quote showing how scalable this technique is, using drill down:

"Starting with the goal of receiving FDA approval - the desired state - they developed the original structural tension chart. Achieving this goal required 23 major action steps. Each step was then in turn telescoped into a structural tension chart. Finally these 23 charts were telescoped into 144 charts."

"The clinical research trial group got its FDA approval in an accelerated time frame, and the drug now makes over $600 million a year for the company." (page 61, 62)

This technique can be used for an entire corporation, department or project. It can be used by a group or individual.

Structural Tension is especially good for those who have a goal, but don't have a comfortable way to start a plan to achieve the goal. They may thrash about, generating options, rejecting elements, trying varous paths, with no clear way to intuitively feel if they're on the right track. Introducing this technique can sometimes give instant and large improvement.

Nearly anyone can learn and start using Structural Tension productively in one hour, just by studying this document and walking over to a whiteboard. If you feel you need more depth, read the book.

If you use Visio, download the template, which is the chart above. The three steps can also be done in html tables, which are easier to edit than Visio but don't look as snazzy.

Page 222 has a jewel of an observation. The central mechanism of Structural Tension is tension resolution. The central mechanism of Systems Thinking is the feedback loop.

And finally, the company wide practice of Structural Tension is very unifying....

"Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it."

Henry Ford