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.”