Some Tensions Are Actually Healthy

As humans, we instinctively attempt to reduce tension—especially in relationships. Unresolved tensions create stomach acid, introspection, and all kinds of tension-easing strategies, most of which are not in your long-term interest.

The sort of tension that has you sleeping on the couch should always be dealt with, as long as you're really dealing with it and not simply trying to smooth things over at the expense of recognizing the root cause. And that will be the glorious end of any relationship advice you'll read in this week's post.

But there's another kind of tension in running a business like yours, and the primary distinguishing factor is that it's actually the sort of tension that's healthy...and that's why it should not be resolved. The best way to picture that kind of tension is to imagine a suspension bridge, where the massive cables are buried deep in the rocks on either side of the river, and pulling against those cables is the static weight of the bridge and the traffic that crosses it. That tension must be held in balance or the bridge collapses.

Here are some of the ways that I see this tension playing out for firms like yours:

  • Being certain enough about how you want to run things...but always cautiously open to discovering where you need to modernize your thinking.
  • Doing what you can to keep an awesome employee around...without crippling the long-term prospects of your firm and benefiting from a younger and cheaper employee who brings new things to the collective experience.
  • Placing big, expensive bets on the future...without mortgaging the present by eroding too much of your safety net.
  • Hiring for the work that you have...versus grabbing that once-in-a-decade hire that just comes along before you're really ready to maximize their contribution.
  • Pricing work to be almost certain to land it and fill the hole in your capacity...or just saying "screw it" and letting the chips fall where they will because at some point you're going to have to press the envelope.
  • Knowing in your gut that a big leadership decision is begging to be made...but also knowing that you're quite a bit ahead of the larger team, most of whom are not ready to embrace this change.
  • Not wanting to be that owner who changes coaches yearly, three years in a row...but also realizing that this new business person or head of account service isn't cutting it. Do you chase sunk costs or cut your losses?
  • Knowing with increasing clarity what you want out of life...and realizing that the business needs something different from you.
  • Realizing that your entrepreneurial instincts are what keep your firm ahead of the pack...but also getting feedback from the team that they crave more structure, a slower pace of change, and more time to socialize decisions.

If you think about your business in that way, you'll see things in a new light. In fact, you'll see dozens of examples of this sort of healthy tension.

And indeed, the best leaders of small, nimble, creative firms like yours strategically experiment with this tension in a giant game of chess, getting close to the track edge without exceeding the limits of traction. As that great intellectual once wrote, "know when to hold and know when to fold 'em." It's a mistake to veer off the road, but it's a bigger mistake to not experiment from one side to the other. You'll never learn much if you chart a path right down the middle.

There you go. Marriage advice, engineering principles, country music, and clear evidence that I'm watching the British Grand Prix while I write this.

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