Have you worked in a company where the bosses couldn't make up their damn minds? For awhile, the structure was decentralized so you and your fellow workers could stay close to the customers and be able to respond to their diverse needs. Then, once that seemed to be going well, the company reorganized and centralized to be more systematic, consistent and control costs better. Then, once that seemed to be going well, another re-organization was implemented to re-decentralize because all the cost saving and standardization had reduced individualized responsiveness and alienated customers? I worked in companies where this happened, and I remember thinking, “Why don’t these geniuses up at the top just make up their minds and stop this back and forth and stick with a decision? Why can’t they solve this once and for all?” Have you ever asked the same thing?
Some years ago, I attended a seminar where the speaker, Barry Johnson, asked the group questions like these, and all of us grumbled and laughed about having lived through this back and forth two-step in organizations. He then told us why this was such a common experience: that the problems our bosses had been trying to solve through re-organizations weren’t merely problems. They were paradoxes, and a paradox can’t be solved once and for all. It has to be managed in a way that, over time, keeps two opposing forces in dynamic balance. Work-life balance is a good example. It doesn’t solve once and for all, but rather is something we return to again and again with sensitivity to when we’ve gone too far in one direction and need to come back the other way. It’s this balancing the tension of the opposing forces that makes a higher level goal possible, such as having a fulfilling career and personal life in the case of work-life balance, rather than having to chose one or the other. Here are some other common paradoxes:
- Flexibility and control
- Short-term and long-term
- Global and local
- Individual rewards and group rewards
All paradoxes have this in common: neither side, by itself, is entirely right, and a more complete “rightness” is possible through skillful balance. Balance is not a static absence of decisions or action, but rather a dynamic shifting of emphasis in decisions and actions from one side to the other – and knowing when to shift.
Once I was introduced to Paradox Management, I have never looked at the world the same way. I now see paradoxes everywhere, and have developed several new methods for diagnosing, mapping out, and managing paradoxes well. I find this one of the most important areas to include in team sessions (team projects almost always involve important paradoxes) and in leadership programs. For this is the understanding that helps leaders move beyond the “rightness” of their own opinions to optimizing the competing perspectives they must increasingly lead across.
How can you start noticing and working with paradoxes? If I were to boil down most of the paradoxes I’ve seen and worked with, they fall into these three basic categories: learning, organizing, and belonging.
Learning – Paradoxes around learning show up when we’re challenged to build on what we know versus learn something new, for example, when we have to deliver the present and find the new future. Learning requires using, critiquing, and often destroying past understandings and practices to construct new and more complicated frames of reference. That doesn’t mean there was anything wrong with the past learning when it was acquired, it just may be out of date, but some people hold onto outdated knowledge because they don’t want to feel they were wrong in the past.
Organizing – Paradoxes around organizing relate to how much or how little of it we’ll tolerate, for example, flexibility versus control. Organizing denotes an ongoing process of balancing opposing forces that encourage commitment, trust, and creativity (“flexibility”) while maintaining efficiency, discipline, and order (“control”).
In my over thirty years of experience consulting with organizations, I almost always find that they value control over flexibility and then wonder why they struggle with innovation.
Belonging – Paradoxes around belonging, especially important in teams, relate to the emphasis on the individual versus the group. To what extent to we honor individual diversity versus group cohesion? How do we get the best from individual creativity and team efforts? As individuals, we have conflicting drives to be independent on the one hand, and belong to supportive groups (family, friends, teams) on the other. Groups, however, have norms that members are supposed to conform to, which may impede out individual freedom. Hence the paradox.
So even though there are countless numbers of paradoxes, if you can learn how to manage these three basic categories, you’ll find it much easier to handle their many variations. A way to get started is outlined in the Paradox Mapping (make link) guide. You might try it out with a paradox facing you now. Or better yet, pick a paradox from each of these 3 areas and map each of them. Once you get a feel for the dynamism of paradox, even de-re-organizations will start to make a new kind of sense.