Using Tension to Create Change

Would we as Acquisition innovators be as innovative without the tension of losing ground to Russia and China? Without our fight against bureaucracy or clumsy dinosaur we’ve-always-done-it-that-way processes?

Without tension in other areas of our lives, would we become content personally? Professionally? Would we stagnate?

Would we find that fine line between contentment and stagnation because if we are not moving forward or we are only standing still, are we then really moving backward as surely as though we were standing in place on a 5 mph treadmill? And what spurs us to keep taking steps onward if not the discomfort of gracelessly face-planting on the machine’s belt and being whisked aside?

Some years ago, I volunteered to be a part of an extra-duty team to market the Lab I worked in as a Contracting Officer. “Market” isn’t quite the word, though we did use marketing strategies to understand how to connect and build new possibilities. It was the era of BRAC and we needed to get smart on joint ventures and relationship building if we were to survive the next round of cuts.

I received no extra pay for all the lunch hours and evenings I worked on this team, but it was one of the most useful experiences of my career, and I’ll pass along the best nugget of what I learned:

Tension is what makes things happen.

Sometimes it’s internal tension, just who we are, and our personal contentment is based on an edginess of constantly trying to better ourselves and our world. Sometimes the tension is external and we have to make a big move to bring the futures we foresee back in alignment with our goals and needs.

The Lab brought in motivational teachers, management theory authors, and marketing gurus to guide us and we put their instructions to good use, both personally and professionally. Some of these well-known people volunteered their assistance just to help their Government figure out better processes, and they shared their successes and lessons with anyone willing to listen. I learned from them to see tension as a good thing, not as just the discomfort of things not being the way we wanted them to be but as a catalyst for change.

Which is why tension is important to us now as innovators and disruptors.

I began to see the idea of tension in everything, or at least, everything that morphs into something new. I would love to think, being the idealist I am, that it is harmony that catches our attention and puts our butts in gear, but it isn’t. No, it’s the things that go against the grain a little bit, the friction, the somewhat uncomfortable that spurs us to make a change so that we are more comfortable.

I think that’s part of life, even in the best aspects of life. The constant readjustment to reach a place of balance and satisfaction, depending on how we define those things. Balance isn’t the natural order for us humans but the struggle to attain that state of existence is, with balance being something that benefits us or our loved ones or our country. Even otherwise happy people will challenge themselves to be better, learn more, fulfill their own purpose, all as part of a pursuit of what I’ll call…balance. The result is that we are always changing, adapting, growing…or we are digging in to keep things the same because that’s our comfort zone, but either way, we cannot just do nothing if the tension is strong enough.

Just look at how the political polarization we are facing now has jolted people into action on both sides over the last several years. People are more active now in political issues than I can recall in my entire life, and it’s because of the tension. Like it or not, tension has been a call to action for the previously apathetic and the previously comfortable, regardless of how we vote. Tension doesn’t let us ignore what we’ve never before noticed, regardless of where we as individuals stand. We may not like the disharmony (or we may), but it jolts us into taking action, whether it’s pulling or pushing.

Understanding the benefits of tension and how to use it as a catalyst for change came to me in one sudden epiphany, courtesy of an expert on organizational structure.

“Do you do you see that Hardee’s sign?” the expert asked me. This was a while ago, so it wasn’t the current smooth, flowing sign with the curlique script. “You see how it draws you in because it’s just a little bit…uncomfortable?”

He went on to point out the slant of the letters–the H to the left and the s to the right–and how they create tension to draw the eye to the sign.

He was right. I realized after that that I couldn’t pass a Hardee’s without the sign standing out in a sea of lights and flashes and letters. It wasn’t the same.

That wasn’t the only type of tension I witnessed though.

I learned the value of silence in a negotiation, the tension it creates, the strain on the other party to fill the discomfort of silence with…anything…for relief. It’s similar to playing a musical scale and stopping on the seventh note.

I realized, too, that we devour our favorite TV shows, writing the showrunners about how much we want a certain thing to happen or a certain couple to get together, and yet almost as soon as the tension evens out and the audience gets what it wants so desperately, the audience tends to lose interest and move on to the next tension-filled story. This is often the point where TV shows “jump the shark” because it’s the tension that keeps the audience tuning in–that need for resolution and the demand for change to get it–and once the audience gets what it wants, it loses interest. It’s much like some romantic relationships where the chase–the resolution of tension–is the draw; only in these cases, it is the audience that has fallen in love with the possibilities that, once resolved, no longer drive them toward commitment or further growth.

A New York Times best-selling author at a writers’ conference I attended around the same time as my introduction to tension as a catalyst pointed out the importance of internal and external conflict in a complex story and how–if it was a romantic story–sexual tension was probably the most important element from the beginning to the happily ever after.

“Want to keep your reader interested?” she asked. “Shut your protagonsists up in a room together when they don’t want to be and then when they want nothing more than to be together, keep them apart as long as possible.”

This matched what I’d learned in my own life and relationships–that the level of interest of the least interested person in the relationship drives the relationship. That’s where the tension lies. The same is true of business and professional relationships.

In literature, the satisfying ending comes from the resolution of the tension, usually first resolving the internal conflict and then the external conflict with the result being forward movement in character development or plot. A writing instructor once referred to the conflict as why the protagonist couldn’t get what he wants. Without the conflict or the tension, there’s not much of a story.

Looking beyond literature, I realized that there was similar tension evident within the institutions. Government organizations. Large businesses. Nonprofits. Universities. Commercial firms that have nothing whatsoever to do with Defense. Publishing companies. Hospitals.

No matter what the sector of life, they all have similar problems that seem to flourish in any large institution. I found that in working with groups of people, the dynamics change at two distinct points. I’m sure there are larger numbers to consider, but haven’t studied those.

The first threshold in organizations is at about twelve people. I’ve noticed this in philosophical gatherings I’ve held in my home since 2003. Nine…ten…eleven people and they’re all content to sit in one room and fervently discuss a subject. Then someone brings an unexpected guest, and suddenly people are breaking off into twos and threes in different corners of the house, no longer in the same room, no longer discussing the same subject.

The next threshold I noticed was at one hundred. Maybe a couple people under or a couple people over, but the texture of a community seems to change of that number, breaking off into more factions to achieve more goals or sub goals, all driven by tensions within the larger community.

These are the first two thresholds where the tensions within the organization cause change and division as the larger organization and its functions evolve.

This is not to say that the results of the tension is always a bad thing. It’s the tension within the organizations that brings change, good and bad. Or disruption as we often like to call it when we speak of innovation. How many people do you know who would have stayed in a bad marriage or a bad business partnership had the tensions not reached the breaking point? The tension motivated them to make a change.

I believe that if we don’t pay attention to tensions and act on them–either to resolve them or to make a significant change–then the situation will get worse until we are more than ready to free ourselves of the tension. It’s hard, but it forces the change we need to make.

So let’s take the tensions in the world today as a sign that change is needed, whether that’s changing people’s minds or processes or figuring out how to achieve either a bridge between us or a compromise that points to a better future for us all.

What tensions are you facing in your life? Your career? With your family or co-workers? In your relationships? How can you use the awareness of those tensions to make a positive change? What processes in your job bring stress or strain that can be resolved by making a change in how it’s always been done? What improvements can you make in your own skills that will make you more comfortable in the next role in your career?

C 2019

Lorna Tedder


  • Rapid Acquisition Consultant
  • Recently retired Contracting Officer, unlimited AFMC warrant 1991-2018
  • Nationally recognized Innovation Thought Leader in Government acquisition
  • Rapid acquisition teacher, both FAR and non-FAR based contracting
  • Master brain-stormer and advisor to program offices across the DoD
  • Expert in developing junior and mid-level personnel to become innovators in Government acquisition
  • 3 decades of first-hand experience and success with Other Transactions, Oral Proposals, 10 USC 2373, Broad Agency Announcements, unique pricing arrangements, Price Based Acquisition, Award Without Discussion, streamlined source selections, multiple award IDIQs, UCAs, waivers, omnibus tool creation, Quick Reaction Capability teams, and strategic sourcing
  • Do you need help? Would you like me to spend a couple of days teaching your Government team how to use innovative contracting methods? Message me on LinkedIn or my contact page.

ˆ Back To Top