Magazine article Training & Development

Learning to Thrive on Paradox

Magazine article Training & Development

Learning to Thrive on Paradox

Article excerpt

"The management of organization, of society, and of personal life ultimately involves the management of contradiction.... The choice that individuals and societies ultimately have before them is thus really a choice about the kind of contradiction that is to shape the pattern of daily life."

Gareth Morgan, Images of Organization (Sage Publications, 1986)

Managers find themselves pulled in more directions than ever before. They must do more and spend less, focus on core competencies and diversify into new markets, delegate and know the details, cut staff and take care of employees, and take risks and avoid costly mistakes. Rosabeth Moss Kanter calls this "the ultimate corporate balancing act. Cut back and grow. Trim down and build. Accomplish more...in new areas with fewer resources." Meanwhile, organizations increasingly expect tidy resolutions of contradictory forces.

Such conundrums confront managers in all types of enterprises. Consider the following situations:

* You work for a large manufacturing firm in which each department has a different priority for the product-development process. Engineering aims for technical excellence, Manufacturing for reproducibility, Sales for rapid turnaround, Marketing for greater versatility, and Customer Service for reliability. Faced with these competing objectives, how do you reduce the time it takes to develop and launch new products?

* You work for the new administration of a financially strapped, socially troubled city. How do you balance the interest of businesses in lower taxes, of community groups in better services, and of the city government in higher revenues?

* You work for a five-year-old high-tech company that claimed a phenomenal market share with its start-up product. How do you enable the company to sustain its growth by becoming more market driven while retaining the innovative edge that made it successful?

* You work for a global firm that increasingly faces local competition in many of its established markets. Do you centralize operations to compete on cost, or do you decentralize operations to compete on customization?

* In a manufacturing firm whose product lines and markets are expanding, how do you make trade-offs among organizing for functional excellence, for product profitability, and for market responsiveness?

All of these situations involve paradoxes--conflicting choices or conditions, each desirable in theory but seemingly impossible to reconcile in practice. (In contrast, a dilemma is a choice between two equally disagreeable or unfavorable alternatives.)

In the past, when managers encountered a paradox, they resolved the conflict by opting for one path and ignoring the other. When the world moved more slowly, that strategy worked, at least until the second choice or condition festered into a state that also demanded attention.

Now, competition is keener and market feedback comes faster. The scope of consequences of any particular action is increasing, while the time lapse between actions and consequences is decreasing. If you fire people to increase profitability, then employee morale quickly sinks, along with profits. If you try to grab market share with low prices at the expense of quality, then your customers quickly abandon you.

In short, managers no longer can ignore paradoxes. The art of managing in the 1990s lies in embracing incompatible forces rather than choosing between them.

To embrace paradox successfully, both managers and organizations must develop new mindsets. Managers need to develop new attitudes toward paradox and to learn ways of thinking that resolve seemingly contradictory policies. Organizations need processes for cultivating paradox instead of avoiding it. And they need new structures that institutionalize the management of paradox.

A mindset for managing paradox

Despite the prevalence of paradox in organizational life, the part of our mind that seeks certainty and precision rebels against the very notion of contradiction. …

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