The delusion of Healthy Tensions

Business Agility, Agile Coaching, Leadership.

Apr 13, 2023  ·  Tony O'Halloran

Business Agility

Every organisation I’ve ever worked with has suffered from ‘healthy tensions’ between roles turned nasty in one form or another. I’ve seen them lead to interpersonal conflict, team dysfunction, silos and productivity grinding to a halt. In general - bad outcomes all round.

What’s a healthy tension anyway?

Creating ‘healthy tensions’ is a technique used in organisational design that entails putting two roles with seemingly competing goals to work together. The the aim is that they balance each other out and get the best outcome.

For example in Scrum the Scrum Master and Product Owner are often described as being in ‘healthy tension’ with each other*. One should supposedly just care about sustainably improving the team, the other should just care about getting the team to deliver on the product vision. Magically these two people should navigate their competing goals and achieve the right mix of both, resulting in value to the customer and happy teams.

The problem is that every ‘healthy tension’ like this inevitably falls over and turns into an unhealthy tension.

I’ve been a victim of these ‘healthy tensions’ at times but also I once thought they were actually best practice and actively advocated for them.

* As a side note, I believe the above example has led to most of the crappy agile implementations in companies that have in turn led to agile being considered to create low quality products, quickly 🤬

Photo by Barnabas Davoti

One company I worked with a few years ago had ground to a halt. A holy war had arisen between their CTO (Chief Technology Officer) and their CPO (Chief Product Officer). In a mad dash to create a product to enter a new market over the last few years quality had slipped to a point that it was getting increasingly difficult to add new functionality to the product and the stability of the product was starting to suffer. Ultimately this was resulting in a slow but increasing bleed of existing customers and employees.

They were under pressure to fix things. So far this had led to a steady stream of failed ideas introduced to work around their failed relationship, including things like:

  • Enforced bug fixing weeks, where no new features were allowed

  • Allowed percentages of technical debt work each sprint

  • Technical debt teams that weren’t allowed to be influenced by product

Each of these failed to fix anything because nothing dealt with the actual problem. The tension between the CTO and the CPO increased and eventually was escalated to the CEO when things got nasty.

The problem here was not the people in the CTO and CPO roles. They were both striving to achieve the goals that they were tasked with. The CPO had a goal of getting as many new value-adding features in front of customers as possible. The CTO was responsible for making sure that quality of the end product was high and that the platform was evolving to meet modern technology standards.

The problem was the goals themselves and the way they were set.

This unhealthy tension was entirely structural and would have happened regardless of the people in those roles.

Ultimately, the problem was resolved between the CPO and the CTO by scrapping their individual goals. They were both tasked with the same thing - delivering as much value to users as possible with a high quality, stable and maintainable product. They were expected to use their individual skills and resources and where necessary make appropriate tradeoffs to do the right thing to meet their shared goal.

These unhealthy tensions are all around us. Think of where they exist in your organisation or your team. Examples could be:

  • Developers being perceived as ‘gold plating’ while POs are trying to get as many user facing changes out as possible

  • Security being perceived as a bottleneck and slowing things down while teams are trying to deliver value

  • Tensions between operations and development teams with differing appetites for risk

What are unhealthy tensions you can see of this nature in your company?

💩 eeek, this is happening to me (or my company) - what do we do?

🤼 Acknowledge it’s an ‘organisation thing’, not a ‘people thing’. Talk to each other and discuss how your competing goals are actually stopping you from doing the right thing at the right time and are ultimately the source of your conflict.

🎯 Find the higher goal - try to find the goal that unites your individual KPIs or goals. Imagine whatever this ‘healthy tension’ was supposed to result in. If you have a shared reporting line, work through this with your manager

🤝 Advocate for change - commit to working together towards the new common goal over chasing individual goals, conceding and making tradeoffs where necessary. Work with your management to set common goals and to resolve the tension.

Take a step back and look at your organisational structure. Find the places where tensions have been created where what’s actually needed is collaboration. Fix them. Create healthy collaboration instead of doomed tension.