Managing Paradox as a Leadership Issue

Photo credit: Jerrold McGrath

Photo credit: Jerrold McGrath

An energy client of ours embodies some of the challenges we see facing leaders and organizations today. Tradition is important to this organization and there are frequent reminders to honor an illustrious past. However, language of innovation and change dominates strategy, vision, and values. This presents a peculiar challenge for leaders as they coach confused teams through the logic of honoring tradition while encouraging a willingness to completely overhaul ‘business as usual’. Senior leadership appreciates the apparent contradiction yet believes that both an attachment to tradition and the embrace of change must co-exist for the organization to thrive.

Leaders and HR professionals are being asked to deal with seemingly contradictory mandates to deliver value. Strategic execution increasingly requires the management of paradoxical priorities and activities. Tushman and Lakhani’s work on open innovation reveals that innovation success will increasingly be predicated on the coexistence of “different and inconsistent innovation logics”[1]. John Kotter writes that traditional hierarchies aren’t able to effectively deal with rapid change so organizations need to design and support an autonomous strategy network that shares members with the hierarchy. He describes employees as having, “a day job in the hierarchy and a night job in the network”[2]. In decision making, leaders and organizations increasingly rely on big data and rapid analytics while simultaneously, experts like Roger Martin advocate for an increased reliance on intuition.

Leadership in the current age require an appreciation and comfort in paradox. The ability to hold two (or more) opposing truths as simultaneously valid is against a lot of our conditioning but this capacity is proving critical for the long-term success of leaders and organizations.

Where does the growth in paradox come from?

We all possess a common sense about how things ought to be and when this common sense is called into question it can be unsettling. Society is undergoing a series of shifts that are asking us to reconsider the foundations on which common knowledge is built. New stories are emerging to try to explain the changes we are seeing. As new voices emerge, they often come into conflict with stories that we already hold.

Innovation, for example, has traditionally been an internal activity as this was a cheaper and more effective approach than contracting on the open market. The HR function supported this through privacy provisions, non-disclosure agreements and other system-level tools to mediate risk. However, as the costs of communication decreased and the distribution of knowledge accelerated, new stories emerged that suggested that external communities can support innovation more effectively than internal research and development. Selecting between open and closed is not a yes/no question though. Successful organizations build capacity for both open and closed innovation and HR and the executive suite design complex boundaries to allow these “inconsistent innovation logics” to co-exist.

Although our impulse will be to reconcile paradox — to eliminate options and provide a clear path forward — resilient organizations will need to build often contradictory capacities to sustain success.

Building Capacity for Paradox

Our experiences and training provide a framework for assessing the efficacy of any given approach. We are trained within our domain of expertise to critically examine assumptions and arguments in order to eliminate inconsistencies. As problems grow in scale and depth, our toolkit proves increasingly inadequate as the problems spill into more and more domains. Opportunities exist, however, to enhance individual and collective capacity to hold and leverage contradictory tools and approaches.

1. Stretch Assignments + Job Rotations

I spent several years working as a consultant in the Japanese automotive industry. Japanese companies generally hire large numbers of university graduates on the same day in the spring. Japan is very status-aware and the equality of cohort members is a given. Over time, certain individuals will be tapped for leadership roles. This would ask them to be both peer and superior creating an irreconcilable social paradox. The solution was to relocate those tagged as leaders to offices in other countries for a period of several years in order to allow the peer relationship to dissipate and a new relationship to evolve upon his or her return. The relocation provided an additional benefit of giving the leader opportunities to see different tools and approaches applied with success in foreign offices. Knowing that more than one ‘right way’ exists can be an important first step to building a comfort in paradox.

While we do not advocate for the relocation of high potentials overseas, assignments that ask the individual to internalize new ways of working or a new set of priorities are extremely valuable. John Deere asks factory line workers to observe their equipment in operation in the field. A financial services client of ours insists that branch managers experience head office functional activities. A utility client intentionally structures cross-functional cohorts for learning and development workshops and projects. All of these activities support comfort in contradiction.

2. Interdisciplinary Teams

Objective-centered interdisciplinary work is another way to build capacity for uncertainty Breakthrough ideas for solving hard technical problems often come from disciplines outside the intended discipline. Participation in several communities offers individuals opportunities to experience context in a real and granular way and practice the tools necessary to navigate competing priorities. An energy services client of ours has introduced opportunities for interdisciplinary exploration. As an example, an engineer asked to participate in a community engagement project was able to develop an appreciation for the multiple perspectives and interpretations that arise during dialog and deliberation when consulting with the public.

3. Qualitatively Divergent Goals

We advocate for and support the creation of performance measures that include sometimes contradictory requirements. An IT client of ours structures goal setting, learning and development around three pillars that often come into conflict — quality of work, social justice and profitability. High potentials are often measured on a set of criteria that evolve as he/she moves through the organization. Tying advancement or compensation to occasionally contradictory goals forces appreciation of the struggle that senior leaders much deal with. Doing this early prevents the dangerous pattern of high potentials only pursuing opportunities where they are likely to succeed. Well-designed goals can also support overall professional development, as emerging leaders see that an inability to perfect everything early doesn’t necessarily lead to falling off the fast track.

4. Discomfort in Learning

Formal learning too often reinforces the continued use of specific tools. When we need ambidextrous organizations, we have to do more than develop strength in the right hand. At Intervene Design, we believe that taking people out of their comfort zone is an effective way to encourage reflection on existing behaviours and application of new perspectives. Our available solution set is defined by the patterns we apply to experience. By supporting learning that is outside of established domain expertise, HR can afford organizations and their members the tools to imagine new frameworks for approaching today’s complex challenges.

Novel experiences and reflection on how we respond in these environments are the stuff of which innovation is made. HR serves an essential role in preparing emerging leaders to deal with paradox. As ongoing disruptions continue to confront existing organizational norms, how will your people be prepared to cope?

[1] Lakhani, Karim R. and Michael L. Tushman. 2012. “Open Innovation and Organizational Boundaries: The Impact of Task Decomposition and Knowledge Distribution on the Locus of Innovation”. Harvard Business School Working Paper, January 5.

[2] Kotter, John P. 2012. “ACCELERATE! (cover story).” Harvard Business Review 90, no. 11: 43–58.