A company wants to be known for innovation at the same time customers embrace it for its stability, to thrill shareholders with strong short-term revenue results and concurrently take actions to ensure long-term health. From those two examples alone, it should be easy to see how failure to manage a critical pair of opposites results in the company stumbling and, perhaps, failing.
Paradox thinking is “and” thinking. It is thinking that identifies pairs of opposites and determines how they are interdependent relative to a key goal. In the previous examples, one pair of opposites is “short-term revenue and long-term health.” They are interdependent because both are vital in achieving the goal of a thriving organization. Failure to manage the pair of opposites may result in the company going out of business; at the very least, it will result in its slow decline.
Affirm Health (real company with name changed) has ascended to the summit of its industry during its 100+ year history. It is one of the largest hospital systems in the United States, and in staying true to its aim to provide care regardless of ability to pay, it is a top provider of care to people who are uninsured and underinsured.
Affirm Health has a corporate structure that inherently involves two set of needs because it is a health-care system and a collection of hospitals. Affirm Health’s mission is to serve the healthcare needs of all people, including those who need assistance with paying. At the same time, the organization’s vision statement refers to a strong, vibrant health care business, which is something that cannot be accomplished without decent margins. The analogous tension between addressing needs of the community and corporate, or hospital, needs is also central for Affirm.
There are situations where paradox thinking is exactly what you need to solve a problem, and then, there are times when you need to decide between options. Unfortunately, many environments engender and reward either/or thinking; in fact, people in leadership roles often associate that false dichotomy with confidence and success. A colonel decides to send troops to one location rather than another for a surprise attack. A football coach chooses between Play A and Play B to win the game. A doctor relies on quick either/or thinking to make a life-and-death decision. In situations like these, choosing one possibility over another may be necessary to solve a problem.
The decision maker who seems decisive earns admiration as long as most of the decisions lead to good outcomes. The pressure on individuals, team leaders, and senior executives to make decisions quickly, to zero in on the better option—spotting the advantages of one over another—is intense. Those who ponder too long can put their jobs at risk.
However, much to the detriment of all kinds of organizations, this mentality has led to either/or decision making as the default approach instead of one that’s consciously chosen because it fits the circumstances. Ironically, either/or decisions—which are often necessary—come more easily and are better informed when coming out of the context of both/and thinking.
The colonel, coach, and doctor have limited ability to replicate their success if they lack the foundation of both/and thinking. Without being able to consider the both/and model, they could find themselves relying on fallible intuition and an uneven ability to analyze situations quickly. They all face strategic tensions prior to making problem-solving decisions. When they recognize what those tensions are and the needs they are based on, the choices they may have to make down the road can be informed decisions. For the colonel, those conflicting needs might be troop strength and high-tech weaponry. The coach could be faced with the prospects of luring a star quarterback and a handful of solid, mid-level players. For the doctor, it might be long-term therapy and a surgical quick-fix. Focusing on such interdependent opposites is generally not an intuitive thing. It’s a learned process.
In looking at Affirm Health’s two dozen conflicting needs that came out of my conversations with one executive, the first pair to take shape was “clinical needs and facilities needs.” An isolated focus on the requirements for providing superior care means that elevators might break down. Making the needs of facilities the priority means that Affirm could build the wrong building very well.
Hospital CEOs are often doctors, so the challenge of caring for buildings often strikes them as secondary to patient care. Using patch solutions to address facilities issues can seem acceptable. A focus on facilities needs means making sure the structure is well-maintained, but from their perspective, this could come at the expense of having the resources necessary for good clinical care. The CEOs needed headquarters’ executives to identify both a threshold and a cap on the dollars that the CEO could spend for facilities and should spend on facilities.
Adopting an appreciation for paradox ends the practice of viewing conflicting needs separately and addressing one over the other. Paradox thinking unravels the assumption that, if we analyze a situation thoroughly, one option will trump another in terms of problem-solving. Organizations do not reach their potential when they habitually use that kind of either/or approach to challenges. Their profit, morale, and ability to innovate suffer.
- Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier is President and CEO of Excel Leadership Solutions and author of “The Power of Paradox: Harness the Energy of Competing Ideas to Uncover Radically Innovative Solutions.”
IT professionals need to value the inherent paradoxes that lie within their field of endeavor, and embrace them as a means of ensuring that a balanced, inclusive approach is taken to managing conflict and achieving the objectives of the organization.
That’s the advice of Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier, PhD, a leadership consultant and author of the book, The Power of Paradox: Harness the Energy of Competing Ideas to Uncover Radically Innovative Solutions. I recently spoke with Schroeder-Saulnier about the paradoxes that confront IT professionals, and about how “paradox thinking” can help identify the potential of seemingly conflicting options.
During our conversation, Schroeder-Saulnier demonstrated an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge about the IT profession. She said the receptivity of IT leaders to paradox thinking—taking a “both/and” approach to conflicting ideas—runs the gamut.
“It’s interesting, in that IT professionals don’t all come from the same background base into IT,” she said. “What I find is there is clearly a sense of openness to listening, because of a desire to be more innovative, and to look for whatever’s coming next. When there’s that openness, I find that it turns into almost a hunger to delve deeper into it. … It’s all about exploring, or being creative.”
At the same time, she said, some IT leaders are more analytical and formulaic, and may not be as open. She described that group as “those who are the more traditional computing people, who have been trained in the sciences, who in the past have had limited tools. They’re the black-and-white thinkers who have experienced change as more evolutionary than revolutionary.”
What’s important, Schroeder-Saulnier said, is to appreciate the validity of both mindsets, and to embrace the paradox around logic and creativity.
“Inside an IT organization, you may have some of those who are more rules-based, and others who have a much more visionary mindset,” she said. “So you have the grounded and the visionary, and it’s critical that both be paid attention to.”
That’s essential, she said, in order to understand the broader issues.
“IT professionals need to go beyond the computing,” Schroeder-Saulnier said, “and have a broader background, with more of an integrative kind of thinking.”
There appear to be plenty of other paradoxes that are readily identifiable in IT organizations.
“If we’re talking about an IT organization that creates and produces IT products, the awareness of ‘high tech’ vs. ‘high touch,’ right there is a paradox,” Schroeder-Saulnier said. “So the higher-tech we go with a service or an offering, we should also be mindful of the higher touch that’s necessary in, for example, a communication device.”
Another one, she said, is “technology focus” vs. “relationship focus.” It made me think of the stereotypical coder, who enjoys being head-down, alone in his corner writing code, but who out of necessity collaborates with plenty of others in the organization to get the job done.
So when organizations that adopt the paradox thinking model fail to achieve the results they’re hoping for, I wonder, where did they go wrong? Schroeder-Saulnier said often it amounts to a timing issue, and there may not be a failure at all.
“Do they really fail to achieve the results, or are they still on the way to achieving the results that they desire? A lot of that can reside in the complexity of paradox,” she said. She cited a company’s growth strategy, which may entail both growth by acquisition and organic growth.
“It’s possible that we’re focusing on one side of the paradox at the neglect of the other,” she said. “If we focus on growth through acquisition at the neglect of organic growth, and we don’t achieve the results we’re looking for in Year One, is that a failure? No. It’s just the outcome of Year One.” It’s all about managing the paradox of stability and change, she said, and recognizing that growth by acquisition is short-term, and organic growth is long-term.
Interestingly, Schroeder-Saulnier mentioned during our conversation that her background is in the exploration of religion and religious studies. I shared with her the fact that I’m a member of the Bahá’í Faith, and I noted that in Bahá’í consultation, the aim is to foster an environment that harnesses the power of conflicting opinions. The idea is to detach oneself from the opinions he expresses. So once I express my idea or opinion, say, in a meeting, that idea no longer belongs to me—it belongs to the group. I asked Schroeder-Saulnier whether that approach is consistent with the paradox model she espouses. She said it’s very consistent, in that it addresses the basic paradox of self and other:
“So if I’m going to try this on, let me go ahead and listen to your ideas in addition to sharing my ideas, because with this approach comes the realization that we aren’t looking at the whole, at the completeness, unless we look at both,” she said. “That’s what this model does. It takes the personal attachment away, to focus on what is our shared aim, and what the interrelationships and interdependencies are.”
Why do a few great companies soar to peak performance while others find only internal obstacles and disappointing limits to its success? Is it just the sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time? Is it ingenious product development, skilled engineering, savvy marketing, or superb leadership?
On their own, technological and operational improvements will fall short of the mark unless carried out by fully engaged people sharing a common vision, focusing energy and resources on critical business goals.
It is definitely a good measure of all of these. But, other less obvious, perhaps more fundamental, conditions can lead to sustainable success.
Through the efforts of people working together, successful companies know and serve customers better than anyone else. This collaboration guides everything day after day.
The key is in how effectively people are integrated with the right technologies and the best processes.
Focus the Vision. In an environment of increasing competition and rising customer expectations, all organizational energy and resources must be focused on defined business goals. Leadership must identify and clarify key business strategy and expected outcomes, communicating this vision throughout the organization.
Align Action. Each initiative and leadership behavior must be aligned to avoid wasteful internal competition and fragmentation that can be devastating to tight margins and schedules. At every level of the organization, action plans and achievable, measurable targets must be set and resources allocated to achieve the vision. Aligned action defines, drives, and supports key behaviors to produce results. Additionally, proven processes and technological solutions are allocated and aligned to support these key actions.
Engage People. Focus and alignment are not enough to command a sustained level of excellence. Everyone throughout the organization must be fully engaged on a daily basis – hands, heads, and hearts committed to the achievement of knowing and serving customers. Everyone’s daily work is connected to key business goals through clear measurement and a commitment to continuous improvement. Every employee understands the goals, what happens if the goals are not met, and what is in it for them individually. Employees are empowered within clear boundaries to make the changes necessary in their work process to get results.
Excel to Success. Focus, alignment, and engagement drive sustained business excellence. People want to be part of a winning team. Make intentions clear, assure aligned leadership behaviors, and give people the power to remove roadblocks in their own work. People will excel far beyond your expectations and achieve their full potential.
Clear goals, valid measurement, and regular feedback guide this approach. Feedback is expected. Celebration is frequent. Change is the norm. Intentions are clear and behavior is kept in balance with those intentions.
Great companies have several things in common. Great companies start with a clear vision of where the company should be, keeping in mind the needs of customers, stockholders, and employees. Great companies develop the goals and strategies that will get them to that vision, connecting the goals and strategies to the daily work of the company. Great companies engage employees in the vision and actions required to deliver results.
These successful companies focus the vision, align actions, processes, and technology, and engage people to deliver sustained excellence.