Materia Gratis: Articles

The Role of Tension Management in Strategic Planning

by T. Falcon Napier

As an independent trainer or consultant, you don’t have to facilitate many strategic planning retreats before you discover how challenging they can be — and the majority of those challenges are a matter of poor tension management.

Opposing perspectives. Personality clashes. Unresolved Issues. Political correctness. These and so many other factors create conflict and confusion, moving participants up into STRESS.

While that’s happening, another group of participants lose interest, retreat, and become bored.  They withhold their insights rather than run the risk of sharing them and precipitating yet another argument. They lose their productive tension and end up in APATHY – detached and disinterested.

Yet another group is distracted by other, seemingly more important matters — involved more with emails and text messages that the work at hand. They may be accomplishing something truly beneficial – but it’s got nothing to do with the strategic planning event.

Participants that end up in either Stress or Apathy can’t or won’t contribute … and those that don’t consider the retreat important enough to deserve their full attention might as well not be there.

Just as the level of productive tension impacts the participants, it also impacts every aspect of the strategic planning process itself.  Participants must stop and ask themselves critical questions throughout the event: How will our team members react to the goals, objectives and action steps we put forth? How will the plan impact the sense of control and level of tension for each of the team members who must execute the plan?  How must the plan be communicated to the team to minimize the negative responses they may have and be more receptive to it – perhaps even energized by it? What must we do to ensure the plan is understood, embraced and executed upon?

Finally, tension also impacts deployment and follow-through. A plan doesn’t succeed simply because the team members have had their levels or productive tension managed well but because the team members properly manage the productive tension of the people THEY need to influence to produce the result dictated by the plan.

From a tension management perspective, here are 13 areas you need to explore to get a better result from a strategic planning event — before, during and after the event itself.


1) Getting Clear —

Let’s be brutally honest about this — successfully facilitating a strategic planning event has far more to do with the facilitator’s tension management skills than it does with the process they happen to be using. The facilitator must be fluent in tension management principles and applying the techniques in such a way that participants are sustained in upper Power and Power-Stress for the majority of the time they’re spending together. Otherwise, the quality of the plan will be compromised, the number of strategic issues they explore will be reduced and their overall experience in creating the plan will be less than everyone had hoped for.

From the beginning, establish whether the intention of the strategic planning session is to actually produce a complete plan or to get the participants to engage in enough meaningful discussion around strategic issues that they build stronger relationships and open channels of communication that will serve them well as they continue to work through strategic issues.  Simply put, is the goal to produce a detailed plan — OR practice the process so they can continue the work in an organic way on an ongoing basis — OR a little bit of both?

It’s also critical to know who the participants are, why they were selected and how they can be best arranged to make the group discussions as meaningful and valuable as possible while maintaining the groups at a manageable size.

If at all possible, have the participants complete a ChangeWorks profile prior to the event, focused on the critical skills required to maximize their contribution to the strategic planning process. The results will equip the facilitator to provide each participant with the right form and level of support to get them and keep them fully-engaged.


2) Setting the Stage —

As is the case with all interactive programs, it’s important to set down a list of ground rules about mutual respect, communicating responsibly and encouraging participation. You would think this shouldn’t be necessary with a group of seasoned professionals, but it is.

Begin with the understanding that the ultimate purpose of a strategic planning session is not to merely author a plan, but to author a plan that CAN and WILL be properly executed by the members of the team at home.  As Stephen Covey puts it, “Begin with the end in mind” — and that “end” is ensuring that the results detailed in the plan are achieved.

Let the participants know that the event has two parts to it, with a 90-minute skill building session and the remainder of the time focused on discussion and the hands-on development of the strategic plan.

3) Delivering the Basics —

During the 90-minute skill building session, cover the basic concepts and principles of Tension Management, explain each of the 5 Levels of Productive Tension, talk about simple ways that tension can be increased and decreased, and acquaint participants with the 5 steps of the Precision-Decision Path.

4) Mapping out the Strategic Planning Process —

Finish the skill building session with a list of the questions they will be answering during the remainder of the program:

• WHAT have we LEARNED since our last Strategic Planning event?
• WHAT are the GOALS for the coming year?
• WHAT are the OBSTACLES we face for each GOAL?
• HOW will those obstacles be eliminated?
• WHAT are the STRATEGIES for reaching each GOAL?
• WHAT are the MILESTONES to reach while pursuing each STRATEGY?
• WHAT are the MISSION-CRITICAL activities to ensure each MILESTONE?
• WHEN must each mission-critical activity be completed?
• HOW and by WHOM will this message be delivered?

Depending on the time allowed and the stated objectives of the event, there may or may not be an opportunity to focus on the deployment part of the planning process:

• WHO will perform those mission critical activities?
• HOW READY are they to perform the activities?
• HOW ENGAGED are they in performing the activities?
• HOW LIKELY are they to actually follow through and do the work?
• WHAT type and level of SUPPORT will they require to succeed?

5) Letting the Discussions Begin —

As you explain each of the steps of the strategic planning process, let each participant practice at the individual level on a personal issue.  This will give them a sense of what each step of the process is designed to do.

Then, the participants should be divided into appropriate groups for the remainder of the discussions.  Those groups may be dictated in many ways — for example, by industry, by product or by customer.  If that isn’t realistic — as in the case of highly-matrixed organizations — try to build groups of a manageable size that include a cross section of key contributors from each of the disciplines the participants represent.

6) Exploring What They’ve Learned —

If it applies, ask the groups to begin with a review of what happened since the last strategic planning session.  What strengths were revealed by their successes?  What gaps were exposed by their struggles? Ask the participants to apply what they learned during the skill building session and identify how tension management played into those results.

7) Defining Goals —

A comprehensive strategic planning process begins with an exploration of a company’s values, vision, mission and purpose and a critical assessment of matching opportunities in the marketplace. However, the strategic planning events we are usually asked to facilitate begin at a point FAR beyond that.

More often than not, the participants in our programs have already been presented with a pre-determined set of objectives dictated by the executives of their organization.  Those objectives tend to be rather broad — so the task of formulating more specific goals is where our strategic planning discussions begin.

As each goal is presented, ask the group to anticipate the reaction the team members back home will have. The goals must be set such that productive tension and growth potential are optimized.  Specifically, Perceived Ability should be Moderate to Moderate-High and Perceived Challenge should be Moderate-High to High. This places the team members in upper POWER to POWER-STRESS, which is ideal for growth.  Goals that move the team members to STRESS will certainly need to be addressed or panic will prevent forward movement — while goals that move the team members to APATHY represent untapped potential and will need to be increased to maximize growth potential.

8 ) Identifying Obstacles —

A fundamental mistake in strategic planning is advancing to the Action Planning step before identifying the obstacles that stand in the way of reaching a goal.  Since the obstacles are the primary sources of the Stress response participants are likely to experience, it’s absolutely essential that they be identified and acknowledged prior to Action Planning.

Think about it this way — what would happen if you hired a construction company to build a home for you on the rocky and rugged coast of California and they drew up the plans and started building BEFORE they assessed the challenges presented by building a home in such a setting?  Where would your home end up?

Never forget that the obstacles are where the greatest growth opportunities lie.

9) Defining Action Plan —

The action plan must address many of the questions posed earlier:

• HOW will those obstacles be eliminated?
• WHAT are the STRATEGIES for reaching each GOAL?
• WHAT are the MILESTONES to reach while pursuing each STRATEGY?
• WHAT are the MISSION-CRITICAL activities to ensure each MILESTONE?
• WHEN must each mission-critical activity be completed?
• HOW and by WHOM will this message be delivered?

As these questions are explored, the answers often lie in the application of tension management principles.  For example, the STRATEGY for reaching a goal may involve evaluating the sales potential at the client, regional or industry level:

Which prospects have a high level of productive tension NOW?
Which prospects should we invest in pursuing — and to what degree?

Another example would be regarding MISSION-CRITICAL activities:

How can we get team members to accomplish MORE with LESS?
How do we accelerate the sales cycle?
How do we keep team members at a productive level of tension?

10) Preparing to Communicate the Plan —

By the time the strategic planning event is over, a plan will be place that must be conveyed to the team members at home — and conveyed in such a way that they will HEAR, UNDERSTAND, EMBRACE and ACT UPON the plan.

Ask participants to anticipate how team members will react to the Strategic Plan — and discuss how the participants could package and present the plan in such a way that adverse reactions are minimized.


While deployment is generally NOT a focus of the strategic planning process, it is the ONLY way the plan will ever be achieved.  So while these final steps cannot take place at the strategic planning event, make sure the participants know that their work is actually just beginning.

11) Communicating the Plan to the Team —

Most strategic planning sessions end with a long list of action items the participants have decided the team members need to focus upon. These action items are delivered to the team with the assumption that immediate buy-in and follow-through will happen.

Sadly, that is generally not the case.

Perhaps the biggest problem in strategic planning is that the plans usually aren’t implemented successfully — and that, more than anything, is the result of poor tension management.  In the hands of an unskilled communicator, the message could escalate tension into the highest levels of Stress or reduce productive tension to the lowest levels of Apathy.  A strong leader with a solid understanding of tension management can deliver the message in a way that excites and challenges team members and engages them in the fulfillment of the plan.

12) Determining Readiness, Engagement and Likelihood of Execution —

Now that the team has been informed, the next task is to assign each of the mission-critical activities to the appropriate team members.  To facilitate this, a ChangeWorks profile can be designed focusing on each of the tasks that need to be performed.  The results will reveal the best candidate for each activity — and provide valuable insight into the team’s readiness, engagement and likelihood of execution.

13) Providing Appropriate Support —

Based on the results of the ChangeWorks profile and the progress each team member makes, the managers will know the appropriate type of support and level of support each team member requires — where they will need training, coaching or an increased level of accountability.

In particular, the team members will need to understand the basic principles of tension management if their mission-critical activities involve influencing others. Particularly in matters related to selling — such as sales cycles, closing rates and protecting profit margins — team members must understand how their seemingly innocent behavior impacts the level of productive tension their prospects and clients are experiencing. If they aren’t paying attention to tension, they ARE losing business and the business they are getting is taking longer to secure than necessary.  Proper tension management accelerates decision making and ensures that the decision is driven by VALUE rather than price.

If you want to take strategic planning to a new level and leave participants with not only a plan but the insights and skills necessary to make it happen, pay attention to tension!


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