CIO TipsProductivity

Part 3 of Redefining Success: Paradox Management

By Richard Harriman


This post is number 3 of 3 in the series “Redefining Success” by Richard Harriman, Illuminet Associate Partner.

One quality of a successful leader is that communication and direction is always clear, unambiguous.  Having to guess as what a leader wants accomplished tends to lead to extra work (or rework), wasted time and frustration all around.  Leaders that communicate clearly what they want, how they want it and when tend to get better results.

So why in the world would a leader EVER decide to intentionally communicate in a way that would/could cause divisiveness?  Would a good leader ever create an environment that may cause conflict intentionally?

The idea of paradox management is to execute on seemingly opposite needs or values in a way that may seem absurd but work together to improve upon a situation or condition.  An example that I use to illustrate this easily is to take the role of a basketball coach that is trying to improve the team and the players.  The coach may tell a player on offense in a one on one drill that it is imperative to score and that there will be consequences if the goal is not achieved.  The same coach then tells the player on defense that the first player must be stopped, consequences will follow if the goal is not achieved.  Neither player knows what the coach has told the other, the only direction is to succeed.

In this example, one will pass, one will fail, so what is the point?  The point is that each player will give the utmost effort to reach the goal, each will improve as a result as the competition will be fierce and full of lessons, not to mention that the fear of consequence (extra laps, conditioning, etc.) offer incentive to succeed.  Although I am not normally a big fan of punishment for losses, this environment (athletics) lends itself to it in that the punishment is a tool to improve (strength, endurance, etc.)  In the macro, the team should improve because the players improve.  Can this be repeated with any expectation of success?  Of course, if the goals and consequences make sense and that the participants understand the bigger picture.

A paradox would be apparent when you have two situations or characteristics that are at such odds with each other, appearing that they could not possibly co-exist.  The classic ‘either-or’ scenario, such as:

  • Solutions that are sought through teamwork and the choices for leading the team are working collaboratively or competitively; basically, increasing team productivity through teamwork or to manage individuals with varying targets and goals to achieve faster, better achievement.

  • In an emergency situation (think hurricane preparedness), the struggle would be to work as a group to accomplish tasks (fill sandbags, clear debris, etc.) and acting as individuals first and then pitching in (moving property, packing family, etc.) as time and energy permits.

There are a ton of examples that make sense in a paradoxical ecosystem when properly positioned:

  • Individuals work hardest and give their best effort when they work in teams and teams are best when the individual parts perform at their best – teams and individuals are complete opposites.  The leader in this situation knows how to balance the efforts of the team and the individuals to best accomplish the goals.

  • People need rest to best perform – performance and rest are complete opposites.  This is best presented as “work/life balance” and leaders need to pay close attention to possible burnout and effectiveness of the workforce when stretched too far.

  • The best success stories typically rise from abject failure – success and failure are complete opposites.  Leaders know when it is appropriate to allow for failure and how to recover in a way that enables the experience but reduces the impact to the business.  Failure is a fantastic teacher.

  • When facing centralized versus decentralized workstyles, if either style dominates the other when both exist you can get conflict that is hard to solve.  On the one hand, rules and procedures may have free thinkers feeling oppressed but with a lack of coordination, processes or forecastable outcomes, the business may suffer.  Leaders in this situation need to apply best intent at the lowest level in the organization as possible and use protocol as appropriate to ensure every part of the business is receiving what is required.  Knowing when and how to apply the rules for best practice and to work to change the ones that impede progress are a sign of a good leader.

To add to the complexity in the business setting, there are often conflicts of culture that can manifest into paradoxes if not effectively managed or clearly addressed:

  • Rules of engagement versus relationships – some cultures follow a rigid process to win business that is deemed “fair” (RFP, bid, auction, etc.) and some prefer to drive business through personal or business relationships.  This can cause paradoxes when managed on a global scale and the two may clash.

  • Merit based reward/award programs versus other factors such as age or experience – this can be seen in M&A and expansion programs when corporate cultures that work in siloes face challenges when attempting to merge.

Leaders that intentionally use a “paradox mindset” as a tool will find that there can be intentional, positive conflict introduced that can create counter-intuitive results that may have been missed otherwise.  A good example would be Einstein’s theory of relativity; Einstein could not let go of the paradox that it could be possible for an object to be both at rest and at the same time moving (in relation to the observer).  His dogged pursuit of this paradox led to his theory, one of the most influential theories in modern day science.

So, how can this be used in a business setting?

The idea is to find areas of the business that can use a paradox mindset to create situations of conflict that can be used in a positive way.  In my previous example of the basketball coach, conflict was created by giving each player an objective that would have a positive and a negative outcome in the micro sense (one player winning, the other losing) but in the macro sense, both would improve and, as a result, the team would improve.

I will not pretend to know your business, but if you start to practice the idea of a paradox mindset, or paradoxical cognition, you will start to see areas of opportunity to put this into play.  Start small – look to test yourself and your team in small ways to open your mind to alternative ways of thinking.

Throw out a challenge to your teams with a reward of some sort that builds a competition around:

  • Finding ways to improve innovation but reduce cost.  These seemingly paradoxical ideas will stimulate some great out-of-the-box ideas.

  • Maintaining or improving performance while encouraging ideas around change or reform.  The adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is a quick way to die in today’s business world.

  • Intra team competition around things like sales objectives, SLA or KPI attainment – get creative!  I’ve used tactics in the past to publicly show goal attainment in an effort to show leaders and laggers and to my surprise, I often found the leaders helping the laggers, which in turn helped the overall team numbers because we also had teams competing against each other.

Leaders need to look to conflicts and competing demands in the workplace as a challenge to improve versus a problem to solve.  Embrace the idea of paradox management to the benefit of your organization and watch for your innovation, cost position and business achievements improve while at the same time increasing job satisfaction and morale.  My father used to say, “work smarter, not harder”, but I think you can do both, a possible paradox in itself.


About The Author

Richard Harriman is a seasoned leader with 30+ years Executive Level Management, Program/Project Management and Team Leadership experience. A results driven professional with a proven record for developing high-performing teams and exceeding corporate objectives. He is also the owner and sole proprietor of CANOMOJO LLC.

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