Great Teams Choose Tension



Great leaders and great teams learn to embrace creative tension and reject the simplistic solutions of “either/or thinking.”

One constant tension for any team or any organization comes from the way people are hard wired. Some people are wired with a bias to go deeper, to do it better, and some are always thinking about going wider, to do more.


I guarantee you have experienced the tension of this dilemma with your staff, on your team, and probably even in your home. You’ve had “energized” conversations about starting something new or strengthening what you are already doing. Do you choose to increase care for your existing people or do you reach out to new people? Do you launch new initiatives to serve your community or do you double down on the ones you already have? Do you save money for a rainy day or do you spend money to make it rain?


I remember leading a team meeting where we were wrestling with a big decision about expanding what we offered to ministry leaders and their churches. The conversation got awkward when a couple people lobbied for the need to slow down expansion in order to focus on improving our existing training, materials, and support systems. Others lobbied for expanding our reach to leaders and networks we weren’t touching at all. I tend to be a “go wider guy,” so I just drove harder and not only failed to embrace the power of minority opinions, I ran roughshod over a couple really good people. Not one of my better moments.


Going deeper means strengthening, refining, and maximizing the potential of what already exists. It means caring and investing more in your key relationships. In the church, it means going deeper in your prayer life, deeper in your understanding of God and the Bible. It means better quality control. It is characterized by the fear of being an inch deep and a mile wide.


Going wider means expanding, pioneering, and launching new initiatives into new territory. It means reaching out to new people and reaching into new areas of need. In the church, it means more people, more services, new church plants. It is characterized by the fear of being an inch wide and a mile deep.

From the perspective of impact, being an inch deep and a mile wide is no different than being an inch wide and a mile deep.

Consider the diagram. Imagine these dynamics as intersecting axes. Any team or organization can plot the state of this tension at any given moment in time. Label the twin axes with whatever terms serve you best: People v. Task; Quality v. Quantity; Improvement v. Expansion; or my simplistic labels--Deeper v. Wider. Then simply plot where you perceive your energy and attention being spent. How much are you focused on going deeper? How much on going wider?



The Impact of your team or organization can be found along the 45 degree meridian. Impact is determined by how well we do a thing AND by how many people, places, or groups are affected.


Over-balance on going wider and you demotivate people because they feel used—a means to an end. Over-balance on going deeper and you demotivate people because they no longer see a goal bigger than all of us—one worth hard work and sacrifice.

Use the Diagram as a Tool


To Monitor Your Focus:: Determine the intensity of your attentions on the two different axes and draw a corresponding line down or across. The point where the two lines intersect reveals your current reality. There is no such thing as staying static. The balance of these tensions is always moving. However, in a time of crisis, especially like the current Covid crisis, the rules are changing everyday. The gravity of circumstances can pull us too far toward either axis as a way of alleviating more tension. This simple tool is a way to help your team stay attentive to unintended shifts you might be making.

For Team Building and Understanding:: Here’s a simple way your team could help understand the contribution everyone brings to your work. Use it with your staff, a working group, a governing board, even with your spouse. Choose a current project that matters. And ask each person to identify their native interest: going deeper or going wider. Put it on a white board and have everyone write their initials where they would plot themselves. (It’s better to do this around a specific project rather than as abstract concept.) Now talk together about how the balance of your group affects your work together? Where are you likely to get stuck? Who is likely to get overlooked? Who are the minority voices that need to be heard more? What is your group's bias when facing high risk decisions? etc. etc.

Why does all this matter? Because attention to both dynamics matters. Because holding the tension between going deeper and going wider is a greenhouse for creativity and greater impact. Because effective teams find a way to do both. Because a great team builds the power and control of a Formula One car, not a lawn mower.

So, where does your native bias land you?

Where do you see your team right now?




[Tug-O-War photo by Oliver Tam from FreeImages]

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© 2020 by Gary Mayes