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Creative tension framework could help CIOs tap into their passion

Author Mark Hopkins explains how creative tension can help today's workforce move from the real to the ideal life.

Advice to CIOs on how to create competitive advantage through IT tends to focus on becoming more customer-centric, building a more flexible architecture or squeezing more out of data assets. But Mark Hopkins, a former Hewlett-Packard engineer who went on to start his own business, suggests a different, more personal approach -- looking inward.

Mark HopkinsMark Hopkins

In his new book Shortcut to Prosperity: 10 Entrepreneurial Habits and a Roadmap for an Exceptional Career, Hopkins provides a motivational guide to help individuals successfully maneuver the terrain of the new business reality -- where Millennials are becoming a dominant force, career longevity is dwindling, analytics is taking on new importance and companies face a growing hyper-competitive environment. In fact, competition has become so steep, being a good CIO (or new employee or business veteran -- Hopkins doesn't exclude anyone) isn't enough anymore. Today's workforce needs to do more to "tilt the field of play" by honing new tactics such as finding and tapping into the power of passion.

The real versus the ideal

To do that, Hopkins recommends establishing a personal vision through the use of "creative tension." The term, coined by Peter Senge, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the Center for Organizational Learning, describes an exercise that helps to juxtapose (on paper, at least) where a person is today against where he would like to be -- what Hopkins dubbed "the ideal life." The word life is important in this context, since the exercise extends beyond the boundaries of work to include other dimensions such as home, health, faith and even fun.

Being a good CIO isn't enough anymore.

"We're all multi-dimensional," Hopkins said. "And if you want to try to focus on one dimension at the exclusion of other dimensions, it won't feel right, holistic or satisfying. It won't be as meaningful."

The gap between the two points -- the real and the ideal -- signifies the tension, which can be relaxed in one of two ways, according to Hopkins. "You can give up on your vision and say my current reality isn't so bad," he said. "Or you can work to move your current reality toward this exciting personal vision you passionately want to pursue."

While designing a personal roadmap may sound small and even inconsequential to large IT organizations or to developing corporate culture in general, it can be the source of an organic momentum. It can help CIOs align their personal goals with those of the company and identify their real passion, which can create a trickle-down effect to the rest of the department, Hopkins said. And, in the most successful cases, that same energy can cause a kind of trickle-up effect: An IT department filled with individuals who are pursuing their passion and are aligned with company goals can create a momentum for the business, he said, and propel the company forward.

"People and organizations that know what their strengths are, what they're good at and where they want to go are higher performing organizations than organizations that are serving the customer in a more traditional approach," he said.

Using tension as a guide

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Creative tension can also give CIOs another piece of insight by indicating when a position just isn't the right one, said Hopkins. He should know; he built his own personal roadmap more than 30 years ago when he worked as an engineer for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard (HP) -- a company he loved and ultimately decided to leave. "I didn't enjoy being in a job where the inputs and outputs were defined, and I was a very small cog in the machine," said Hopkins.

He realized he wanted to try his hand at entrepreneurship, but creating a roadmap also made him see he needed more experience first. He found a "stopover" with Emerson Electric, a manufacturing and technology company based in St. Louis, where he spent six years before launching Peak Industries, a medical device contract manufacturer. It's a business he grew and developed for almost a decade before selling it to Delphi Corp., the auto-parts maker based in Troy, Mich.

"It's scary how much my actual outcomes imitated the personal vision I created," Hopkins said. "The most meaningful part to me was giving me a framework to think about what I wanted to do that was strong enough to give me the confidence to quit my job and pursue it."

For more CIO advice on inserting creative tension into your organization, visit

Let us know what you think about the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer or follow @TT_Nicole on Twitter.

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