Home Learn ‘One Ring’ To Rule Them All (Structural Thinking)

‘One Ring’ To Rule Them All (Structural Thinking)

Note: This is a reprint of a previous Emergent Marketing Newsletter. If you're not receiving our email newsletter, you can subscribe here.

14 min read

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know.” — Albert Einstein

There's an old saying (with sketchy attribution): “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Another way to express this idea:

Give someone the answer, and they only have a temporary solution. But teach them the principles that led to that answer, and they'll be able to think for themself, create their own solutions, and adapt to change.

One thing is sure in life and business; change is inevitable and constant, just as the sun will rise and set tomorrow.

Yet, most marketers and creative professionals are ill-equipped to deal with significant change.

So they default to “shortcuts” and hackery, seeking “fish” instead of equipping themselves with the ability to understand “how to fish.”

… so when change inevitably rolls into town, they have to scramble to find the next “fix” (or fish) to duct tape to their business. Until the next time. And the next…

When we started to write this essay, we imagined we would write about the benefits of having underlying principles supporting our efforts to achieve the success we desire.

But what revealed itself on the page is that there is one principle, in particular, that is essentially the ‘One Ring' to rule them all.

We've explained many of our underlying principles on our site and in our courses. These principles shape how we see and navigate the world, and inform how we create value for the people we serve.

Yet, we realized we've never revealed the one principle, which is perhaps the most powerful of all.

Once you understand this principle, internalize it, and embody it in your life and business, you'll be equipped to deal with change in a way that will very likely remap how you think about making change happen from now onwards…

If you're like us, once you internalize this principle, you'll never be able to “unthink” it.

This reminds us of a distinction we've heard between amateurs and professionals. An amateur practices something until he gets it right. A professional practices until she can't get it wrong.

If you're someone who gets stressed and anxious when faced with change (in life or business), this idea may be a turning point for you…

Final warning: if you're content with how you deal with change, now is your opportunity to pull the pin and close this page. As we said, you'll not be able to “unthink” what we unpack next…

Alright, with your permission, down the rabbit hole we go…

Robert Fritz is an author and management consultant known for his development of structural dynamics.

Structural tension is one of the most powerful principles you'll ever learn…

The use of tension in this context is about structure, not pressure, stress, or anxiety. Tension in this context has the same meaning as in physics, and in physics, tension always seeks resolution.

Before we unpack any more, we want to orientate back to the concept of change and how it relates to structural tension.

We'll use weight loss as an example to demonstrate this point because it's a frame of reference we can all relate to. We've all tried to lose weight at some point.

Especially in January each year, right? 🙂

Meet Seth.

He's giving away his oldest daughter, and the wedding is in three months.

With a ping of horror, Seth realizes he will appear in hundreds of high-resolution photos, many of which will likely be framed and hung on walls for eternity (with his gut sucked in, a triple chin, and sporting a 1,000-watt smile).

So Seth plans to lose some weight.

20 lbs if he can muster it. (Although he'll secretly be happy with 10 lbs, he tells himself. Shoot high. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.)

With a clearly defined, emotionally charged goal of his desired future state, and an honest assessment of his current reality, Seth has just created an ‘advancing‘ dynamic that “pulls” him forward towards his vision.

Here's the mental picture we want you to have…

Imagine a rubber band stretched between Seth's vision (lose 20 lbs) and current reality (20 lbs overweight). When stretched, the rubber band creates tension, representing the tension between his vision and current reality.

P.139, The Fifth Discipline (Peter M. Senge)

Credit: P.139, The Fifth Discipline (Peter M. Senge)

(We've spoken about Peter M. Senge, a systems scientist at MIT, a few years ago in our systems thinking email. He's a smart guy.)

What does tension seek?


For Seth, there are two possible ways for that tension to resolve:

  1. pull his reality toward his vision,
  2. or pull his vision towards his reality.

Which occurs will depend on whether he holds steady to the vision.

Now imagine a second rubber band anchored to his limiting beliefs and worldview around food, exercise, and health. Maybe he has failed to lose weight in the past, doesn't believe he'll stay committed, etc.

Just as the first rubber band pulls Seth toward his goal to lose 20 lbs, the second pulls him back toward his underlying beliefs that he can't achieve his lofty goal.

P.139, The Fifth Discipline (Peter M. Senge)

Credit: P.145, The Fifth Discipline (Peter M. Senge)

Unfazed, with the wedding now only two months away, Seth soldiers on in an attempt to advance towards his goal.

Each time Seth moves forward, the pull toward his vision weakens (he's losing weight!) and the opposing force toward his limiting beliefs strengthens.

The result is equilibrium.

Fritz defines this property of structural dynamics as ‘oscillation‘ (like a rocking chair; back and forth, back and forth without ever getting anywhere).

Structural tension manifests in two ways:

  • Advancing
  • Oscillating

… and each dramatically affects how change happens (or doesn't).

Advancing structures arrive at a new reality (for example, Seth's vision of himself 20 lbs lighter). Oscillating structures take two steps forward, and two steps back, never making any real progress.

A change in underlying structure will lead to change in behavior. Almost invariably people try to change things without understanding; what are the underlying structural dynamics that cause the behavior to happen? There is a tendency to say, when we look at something: how do we change it? Before we ask the question: how do we understand what's giving rise to the predictable patterns of behavior that we're seeing? — Robert Fritz (source)

Because he's caught in an oscillating structural dynamic, Seth probably won't lose the 20 lbs. If by some miracle of willpower he does, and his underlying beliefs about himself remain unchanged, “oscillation” will invariably occur. He'll likely gain the weight back and start the cycle all over again.

The insight here is that for change to happen and be permanent, the underlying structure needs to change first.

So what's the solution for Seth?

Let's looks at Seth 2.0.

Each time Seth 2.0 makes progress towards his goal of losing 20 lbs, he changes his underlying belief system. He becomes increasingly confident that he can succeed.

Buoyed by early results — say, losing his first 5 lbs — he resets his current reality, weakening the force pulling him back to past behaviors.

Permanent change is a by-product of this progressive, dynamic resetting of his current reality combined with a clearly defined future state pulling him forward.

This exact same dynamic exists in business.

When we rely on impermanent solutions outside of ourselves, we make progress only as long as those solutions continue to work. As soon as the tips, tricks, and hacks stop working, our progress stops as well.

Imagine, for example, that our vision is a business that generates $100,000 in pre-tax income, and our current reality is a business that generates $0 in pre-tax income.

Initially, we're pulled toward that vision. Maybe we watch some YouTube videos about the latest traffic or list-building “hack,” or we buy a course that explains a method that worked for someone else.

Then we implement — which is a big step forward.

But, because we were handed the “fish,” we don't know what to do when the tactics stop working (or don't work exactly as advertised). We're pulled back into equilibrium, and the process starts over again.

Off we go to find the next course, the next big promise from the latest guru launch…and the cycle repeats.

That's an oscillating structure — two steps forward, two steps back. The dream of $100,000 in pre-tax income is always just out of reach. “Next time it'll be different…” you tell yourself.

There is a better way.

Step one is to understand the game you're playing. That game has three component partsawareness, engagement, and conversion — each one is necessary, but none, on its own, is sufficient.

Step two is recognizing that business results — $100,000 in pre-tax income (or $100 million) — are emergent properties of those three parts interacting. It's not the parts that matter as much as the ways those parts interact.

Steps three, four and five are clearly defining your vision, how you'll measure progress toward that vision, and accurately assessing where you are now relative to that vision.

Here's an excerpt from our free 10-part course How To Build A Happy Customer Creating Engine With Paid Traffic that explains steps three through five:

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Britain's Men's Eight rowing team did something no British team had done since 1912 — they won gold. How they did it holds a critical insight for all of us seeking to accomplish anything meaningful.

After a disappointing finish in Cologne in 1998, the British team began to ask one question for every decision they made — will it make the boat go faster? (Hat tip to Simplero founder Calvin Correli for recommending Ben Hunt-Davis's book that tells the story.)

“Will it make the boat go faster?” — modified slightly for our purposes — may be the most powerful question you can ask to radically transform your business (and your life).

Before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to unpack a couple of related questions. What is the ‘boat' that we're working on, and how do we clearly define ‘faster'? If we don't take the time to answer both questions with razor-sharp clarity we're doomed from the start.

We could define the ‘boat' as an offer, a funnel, a particular traffic campaign. Narrowing our focus like that is appealing, but that would be a mistake.

Instead, we recommend defining our particular ‘boat' as our business / craft / profession. This perspective forces us to hold up every decision to a simple question — will this make my business go faster?

Next, we need a very clear definition for ‘faster'. We believe the goal of any business is to produce happy customers, so ‘faster' is our measurement for how we're doing relative to that goal.

Here are two simple examples.

If we have a customer acquisition funnel that produces ten customers per day with a 20% refund rate within 30 days, we're producing eight happy customers per day (10 / day – 20% within 30 days = 8 happy customers per day). Reducing our refund rate from 20% to 10% would make our ‘boat' go faster because we would be creating nine happy customers per day vs. eight.

A simpler example — if that same customer acquisition funnel produces nine happy customers per day and we scale that campaign to twenty-five happy customers per day, our ‘boat' would be going faster.

This clarity and precision is critical — the moment we let our primary goal become muddy and vague we've lost the profound power of Ben Hunt-Davis's question.

Your first assignment is to get something to write with and something to write on and clearly define the boundaries of your business. (We often say that if you can't draw your business on a napkin with a crayon you don't understand it clearly enough.)

Here are some questions to help you get started.

What are you paid for / what do you sell? (This could be a product or a service, physical or digital. What we're looking for is clarity about the exchange of monetary value from your customers to you. What is the thing that customers buy from you? Don't get wound up about front end vs. back end – get it all down so it's visible.)

Where / how do your customers find you? (Organic traffic, paid traffic, word of mouth, referrals, affiliates, guest blogs, other online content, etc.)

What measurable steps happen between awareness and purchase? (What do your prospects see, hear, and do that makes them aware that you / your business exists? How do they begin to engage? Continue to engage? How do they eventually buy?)

Take the time to answer these questions thoroughly and precisely.

Step six is learning how to fish.

That requires focusing your energy and attention on learning the principles of marketing instead of relying on quick-fix tactics and hacks.

How? We're glad you asked.

If you're new to marketing, or want a refresher, start with our free eight-week mini-marketing-MBA.

If you already have a business generating customers, we have three free courses you may find interesting:

And, of course, we have our paid courses as well.

If you're just getting started, we recommend The Durable Business (our framework for creating a business from $0 to $100,000+ in revenue).

Other courses are:

All of our courses — free and paid — are based on timeless marketing principles and grounded in our 4+ decades of combined experience.

Finally, if you're intrigued by the ideas in this article we highly recommend a visit to Robert Fritz's website (start by reading his principles). His books are excellent too (we recommend The Path of Least Resistance and Your Life as Art).

Robert Fritz — “The Fundamentals of Structural Thinking” (30 min. Video) is excellent too.


André & Shawn