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.”
By Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier, Guest Blogger & CEO, EXCEL LEADERSHIP SOLUTIONS – Posted on May 16, 2014
Are you often faced with conflicting situations and mixed-message demands from your board, your team, key stakeholders, and the market? Take risks to grow dramatically and protect your current stability. Seek to maximize sales and watch the bottom line. Build future leaders and prove leadership excellence now.
Paradox thinking is “and” thinking. It enables balanced management of interdependent conflicting objectives. Adopting an appreciation for paradox ends the practice of viewing conflicting needs separately and addressing one over the other. 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.
Think through the challenges of your organization as I unpack the struggles of one healthcare company to reveal priority paradoxes to drive focus for today and tomorrow. The name of the organization has been changed to ensure confidentiality.
Many of the conflicting needs that emerged from my conversations related to Affirm Health’s organizational challenges took on the veneer of either pro-facility or anti-facility, or pro-corporate or anti-corporate. That actually made it fairly easy to find pairs of conflicting needs.
Someone in a senior position for facilities management might be parked on one side of a conference table across from a physician who is the CEO of one of the many hospitals in the system. They would potentially have conflicts about where the money is spent and how best to support the mission of the company. Disagreements such as these are precisely how you can unearth valuable paradoxes. Don’t sit down to the conversation with the attitude “let’s all get along.” Instead, use the disagreement to establish a sense that you’re both on the same team, out to achieve the same Aim (best case scenario) and avert the big Miss (worst case scenario).
Here are selected pairings of conflicting needs for Affirm Health that came out of the conversations:
- Clinical needs and Facilities needs – Without ever losing focus on quality patient care, there needs to be a coordinated effort to maintain structures in a first-class way.
- Reducing costs and Increasing growth – The reality of reduced funds from key sources does not necessitate a hunker-down mentality when it comes to building the organization’s talent, impact, and potential to serve more people.
- Slow, steady growth and Agility – Pacing growth in consideration of resource constraints does not preclude moving quickly in some areas to keep up with changes in the environment and changing needs of constituents.
- Strategic plans and Business plans – Vision and standards give an overarching sense of direction from headquarters while the individual hospitals keep their focus on day-to-day actions.
- Mission and Margin – Staying true to a healing mission driven by compassion and dedication to care for those most in need requires money.
- Centralized control and Distributed leadership – Individual hospital CEOs need the freedom to act on what they know is the best way to serve their populations; at the same time, it’s important they adhere to best practices, budgets, and other corporate mandates.
- Nurturing relationship with managers/leaders and Asserting expertise – Self/team-awareness of and confidence in skill areas must be coupled with an appropriate regard for authority.
- Tight systems and Flexibility in care – Efficiency and adherence to protocols at the service end combine with tweaking the rules and “staying loose” to deliver personalized and customized care.
With Affirm’s twelve pairs—grouping the pairs thematically— took shape like this:
SHORT TERM AND LONG-TERM
- Business plans and Strategic plans
- Reducing costs and Increasing growth
- Slow, steady growth and Agility
CONTROL AND FREEDOM
- Tight systems and Flexibility in care
- Centralized control and Distributed leadership
- Nurturing relationship with managers/leaders and Asserting expertise
WHY AND HOW
- Mission and Margin
- Clinical Needs and Facility Needs
Exploring paradoxes by looking at the positive outcomes of managing them well over time¾and the negative outcomes of over-focusing on just one part¾should increase your situational awareness. The next step is determining action steps that will get you where you want to go!
Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier, president and CEO at Excel Leadership Solutions and a former partner at the Clarion Group, is a results-driven executive with a doctorate in management. She is author of The Power of Paradox: Harness the Energy of Competing Ideas to uncover Radically Innovative Solutions (Career Press).
When this year’s Corvette Stingray rolled out, critics lusted. The slick GM (GM) sports car, they wrote, has throaty vroom and plenty of zoom. Plus the ride gets 28 miles to the gallon. A fuel-efficient muscle car? It’s possible, if businesses can tackle more than one vision at once.
At Excel Leadership Solutions, CEO Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier points to the latest Stingray as an example of a new brand of broad thinking. Her lesson to executives: You can have it all — if you’re willing to stretch your mind.
“People achieve the impossible by striving for goals that don’t seem as though they belong together,” she wrote in The Power of Paradox.
Try twisting either/or thinking to both/and strategy. “If you see an opposite that is right in front of you, grab it,” she told IBD.
Start with these tips:
• Explore. Schroeder-Saulnier urges executives to take a candid look at their companies. Profit-charging polarities hatch when you ask probing questions:
How are things going with you?
What’s working well?
What do you want long-term?
How will you get there?
• Stabilize. You can be level and still bring the sizzle. Listen to cynics and traditionalists. Their chorus will steer your insights, Schroeder-Saulnier says. “It’s not just looking at what we are moving away from, but it’s also ‘What’s the as-is we want to hold onto?’”
• Map the gap. Disagreements spark new conversations. So Schroeder-Saulnier encourages colleagues to keep talking — with an eye on possibilities.
For example: One corporate hotel chain she advised was lagging. The issue? Inns held tightly to unique character. Customers liked that. But to survive globally — and go after big goals — the chain had to have some standard procedures.
• Harness. Schroeder-Saulnier taught the company to understand that its corporate coordination didn’t need to trump the charming, local flair of each inn. Balancing between global and local was an ideal way to work, she told leaders.
• Equalize. “The team immediately had a fresh focus,” she said. “They now saw a situation in which their company had a strong presence around the world both because of the standards established at the corporate level and because general managers at the individual properties had the freedom and creativity to manage that presence as they saw fit on the local level.”
• Train. Ready to shift? Work daily to boost both/and thinking, recommends Amy Hillman, dean at Arizona State’s business school.
“The key to this is mental discipline,” she said. “Every article or headline you read, make yourself think through the options, either/or or both/and. If you can practice this dispassionately about companies that aren’t yours, then when you need to, you’ll have the discipline to do it regarding your own company.”
• Cooperate. “Both/and thinking requires a safe environment that focuses on celebrating and rewarding team achievements,” said Brent Daily, co-founder of the office-culture adviser RoundPegg.
• Campaign. Idea drivers: Leverage both/and thinking to gain buy-in from a variety of key players with different needs, suggests Christian Gaiser, CEO of online shopping platform Retale.
“Have an open and unbiased discussion style,” he said.
• Explain. “Either/or thinking would just lead to a loss in acceptance among team members,” said Gaiser, “and ultimately negatively impact execution, which is most important of all.”
Bringing the skeptics on board — and hearing them out when they resist your idea — adds verve to new initiatives.
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.”
Career Press Releases New Book by Expert in “Paradox Thinking”
Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier’s The Power of Paradox Available March 24;
Launch Event on March 26 in St. Louis
(PRWEB) February 28. 2014
Rudy Agency author Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier’s debut book, The Power of Paradox: Harness the Energy of Competing Ideas to Uncover Radically Innovative Solutions will be released by Career Press on March 24. Schroeder-Saulnier, who holds a doctorate in management, takes an approach to business that is consistent with a philosophy of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr, who said, “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” (The Man, His Science, & the World The Changed)
President and CEO of Excel Leadership Solutions, Schroeder-Saulnier says, “It enables balanced management of conflicting objectives. Paradox thinking identifies pairs of opposites and determines how they are interdependent relative to a key goal.”
In business, inherent tensions are mistakenly viewed as problems to be resolved once the “correct” answer is found. But if only one direction is considered—either A or B—only part of the picture is visible. The best and most innovative solutions are frequently realized not by choosing one option rather than another, but by pursuing two contrasting options at the same time—the both/and option.
The Power of Paradox insightfully guides one on navigating through a world where black and white solutions rarely exist. – Ward Klein, CEO, Energizer Holdings, Inc.
“Paradox thinking enables balanced management of conflicting objectives,” notes Schroeder-Saulnier. “A company wants to be known for innovation-change 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.”
In the book, Schroeder-Saulnier reveals a dynamic critical-thinking process anyone can use to define the strategic tensions within his or her organization. She shares the same steps she’s used to help Fortune 500 companies as well as regional not-for-profits.
Complete with detailed case studies of companies that achieved a competitive advantage with this breakthrough strategy, The Power of Paradox will help executives face chronic challenges with confidence and uncover unexpected and infinitely better solutions.
“When you begin to think in terms of ‘and,’ you have a powerful tool for solving problems and achieve goals,” states Schroeder-Saulnier.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier, president and CEO at Excel Leadership Solutions and a former partner at the Clarion Group, is a results-driven executive with a doctorate in management. She has devoted her career of more than 24 years to partnering with CEOs and top leaders to clarify focus and accelerate the pursuit of critical market, business, and leadership priorities. Her work with a variety of Fortune 500 companies worldwide, including Scottrade, Georgia-Pacific, and Boeing, has been centered on collaborative and integrative approaches that solve problems. She is based in St. Louis, Missouri.
The Power of Paradox
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.