The Problem with Paradoxes

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Most managers are facing daily problems, and cannot (really) solve 95% of them, once and for all. These problems recur, change forms or move across the organization.

There are various explanations or excuses, like lack of time, urgent problems, too complex, too intricate.

Until one day,

  • They get depressed, or burned out, or
  • They are replaced, but most of the time, some things change, but nothing change

In fact, what they don’t know is that 95% of problems in life are not problems … but paradoxes.

And paradox cannot be solved … but dissolved.

  • You cannot tackle them by getting closer, and analyse, but by stepping back, and letting go. See the bigger picture and relate things.
  • And If you cannot spot the difference between a problem and a paradox, you may just end up like them…

§1 — What is a Paradox ?

A paradox is not a problem. A problem is a situation where a Task is to be performed and for which there is no known solution or systematic method of resolution. Or when an obstacle prevents progress, or achievement of what one wanted to do. Once the solution is found, or obstacle is overcomed, the problem is considered as solved. Gone.

A paradox is not a dilemma. A **dilemma **is a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is unambiguously acceptable or preferable. The house is on fire , and you can save only one of the two , your daughter or your companion… This offers a tough choice, but it can be done.

A paradox is like Buridan ’s ass . Where in a donkey is placed midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water and dies of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision between the hay and water, as when it goes towards the hay, it gets farther from the water, and reversely.

Or a mother that offers two ties to a child, one red and one blue. He wears the blue , and she says, « You do not like the red one ? » Next day he wears the blue, and she says, « You do not like the blue one1 ? »

§2 — Why is it an issue ?

  • A Paradox cannot be solved . You cannot find a (definitive) « solution » to a Paradox.
  • A Paradox may be confused with a problem unless you know how to recognize them. And if you do not recognize it, you may end up trying to solve it, endlessly…
  • Intuitively, we naturally shy away from paradox , and2 this provides a motivation to go back and resume business as usual, as if nothing happened.

Is it frequent in Organisations ? In modern organisations, you can see trends , described as movement from one way of thinking or acting to another:

  • from neglecting the customer to focusing on the customer;
  • from individual to team;
  • from competition to collaboration;
  • from centralization to decentralization;
  • from a lack of quality consciousness to high quality consciousness;
  • from rigid structures to flexible arrangements;
  • from autocratic management to participatory management3 .

On an organizational level paradoxical situations rise when for example we try to build teams out of (individualistic) experts; trying to explore and innovate while exploiting resources to optimize; thinking globally while acting locally; fostering creativity while we increase efficiency; or trying to be in control when letting go of control seems to be working better4

§3 — How do we Get out of this ?

If Paradox cannot be solved, can we dodge it ? Unfortunately, it cannot be avoided , as it comes with complexity, and antagonist proposals.

How is it built ? Bateson suggests seeing it as two layers of injunctions :

  • Two proposals (perceived as ) antagonist , or as polar opposite.
    • And missing one means a failure .
  • The obligation to choose

This is obviously a system that cannot be solved. In the previous example, the proposal is to wear a tie, one tie ( the red OR the blue) and complaining about the other one is « not liked ».

This can be fixed it by removing the obligation to choose ( reframing) . Wearing no ties, or both !

  • There may be a third layer: the interdiction to talk about it, and say it is a paradox. This could be the case if this questioned an « authority » for example ( The mother, law, rules, habits).

Paradox is in the eyes of the beholder . The notion of good or evil, success or failure are the values and beliefs of those who watch the situation.

True or true ?
True or true ?

The paradox is a call to questions some assumption the paradox relies on.5
Taking a step back foster the possibility to see the frame, to change paradigm, to see things with a new perspective.

The good news is we all know how to break out of a paradox , and manage the polarities, at an individual level . Do you prefer to exhale or inhale ?

Do you prefer to exhale or inhale ? ?

§4 — What would we gain in doing so?

Any kind of transformation will create paradoxes. Whether it is a digital transformation, an agile transformation, some cloud one, or a business model transformation, a transformation means that several systems, set of rules, and cultures will cohabit in one organization6 . This will create paradoxes and manifest as tensions.

There is a limit of complexity that the organization can absorb if you don’t. Size, growth rates, adaptability, stability, innovation are limited with ‘problems only’ approach. This is particularly acute in High Tech environment, where managers have a strong technical background, and have a background of ‘fixing problems’. This could become a limiting bias. Trying to push for one polarity (rather than managing the pair) creates an opposite reaction somewhere in the organization, bringing guerilla warfare and movement to a halt.

There is a limit of complexity you can absorb if you don’t. The higher you are in the Organization, the more exposed you are to a VUCA world. Not only are you exposed to the tensions of the many layers of internal organizations; but the outside bring some more, creating a network of constraints very dense, fuzzy, sudden and unpredictable…

§5 — Conclusion

  • A problem can be solved, a paradox cannot.
  • One may well confuse a paradox for a problem, unless you seek to distinguish them.
  • A paradox calls for reframing, adapting the frame of thoughts, typically a paradigm shift (whether a problem occurs IN the frame).
  • Transformation is about changing the frame (not only the content).
  • The higher you go in the pyramid, the more you will be exposed to paradoxes.

§6 — Going Further

Organizational levels

  • Here we focused mainly on social paradoxes, especially the double bind.
  • 7 Present a larger taxonomy of paradoxes, including logical ones, and regards organization as Complex Adaptative system (CAS)
  • 8 (book) present paradox in organization as polarity, and deals with the one listed in the section 2. (individual vs team; competition vs collaboration; …) . His seminal paper from 93 is still here9 . This is worth reading to see the three categories of problems10 and why either/or does not work for paradoxes.

Societal Level:

  • Graves11 describes in his spiral dynamics a set of values, which match the societal level of complexity . Once a level stretches too much the current set of values and beliefs , then coherence melts. A new set emerges then, in counter-reactions of the previous one ( antagonistic) , to frame the new beliefs and values.

Individual Level:

  • Watzlawick pioneered the study of double bind12 ( on Schizophrenia) in 63 with Bateson . The following are still very useful to understand inter and intra-personal levels :13 explain the way we deal with changes, and the very humorous14 how we create unhappiness.

Generic theories and models:

  • Morin , on top of his many work15s on complexity , explains in its « sociology16 » how complex systems are sustained by antagonist tensions.
  • The Ecocyle present a model with four polarities, and is very applicable to product portfolios, organizational transformation, etc.
  • Wardley17 extends the four zones of Cynefin , and present the many tensions18 across the four zones (Strategy, HR).

§6.1 — Bibliography [bibliography]

Braathen, Petter. “Paradox in Organizations Seen as Social Complex Systems.” Emergence: Complexity & Organization 18, no. 2 (2016): 1–14.

Johnson, Barry. “Polarity Management.” Executive Development 6, no. 2 (May 1993). doi:10.1108/EUM0000000003846.

———. Polarity Management, 2nd Edition: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. 2Rev Ed. Amherst, Mass: HRD Press Inc.,U.S., 2014.

Montuori, Alfonso. “Edgar Morin: A Partial Introduction.” World Futures 60, nos. 5-6 (2004): 349–55.

Morin, Edgar. La sociologie. Paris: Fayard, 1994.

Taesch, Luc. “Coacher une transformation.” Serendipity, November 5, 2018.

taesch, luc. “Criterias Les 6 Critères d’un Changement de Niveau Dans La Spirale Dynamique.” Serendipity, February 25, 2018.

———. “Émergence et autonomie. Partie 1.” Serendipity, March 11, 2018.

Wardley, Simon. “An Introduction to Wardley ’Value Chain’ Mapping.” CIO UK, 2015.

Watzlawick, Paul. “A Review of the Double Bind Theory.” Family Process 2, no. 1 (1963): 132–53.

———. The Situation Is Hopeless, but Not Serious: The Pursuit of Unhappiness. WW Norton & Company, 1993.

Watzlawick, Paul, John H Weakland, and Richard Fisch. Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution. WW Norton & Company, 2011.

  1. Here we illustrate with « social Paradox », namely a double Bind ». A Larger Panel of Paradox can be found in Braathen, “Paradox in Organizations Seen as Social Complex Systems.”. 
  2. because of the cognitive discomfort evoked by the pheonomemon ibid 
  3. Johnson, Polarity Management, 2nd Edition 
  4. Braathen, “Paradox in Organizations Seen as Social Complex Systems.” 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Taesch, “Coacher une transformation.” 
  7. Braathen, “Paradox in Organizations Seen as Social Complex Systems.” 
  8. Johnson, Polarity Management, 2nd Edition
  9. Johnson, “Polarity Management.” 
  10. one solution ; one or more independant solutions ;2 or more interdependans answers 
  11. taesch, “Criterias Les 6 Critères d’un Changement de Niveau Dans La Spirale Dynamique.” 
  12. Watzlawick, “A Review of the Double Bind Theory.” 
  13. Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch, Change
  14. Watzlawick, The Situation Is Hopeless, but Not Serious
  15. summary by montuori Montuori, “Edgar Morin.” 
  16. Morin, La sociologie 
  17. Wardley, “An Introduction to Wardley ’Value Chain’ Mapping.” 
  18. Taesch, “Émergence et autonomie. Partie 1.” 
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