As business owners and managers are forced to compete in a more volatile and complex environment, the traditional “command and control” approach to leadership is no longer effective.
No matter what size the organization, factors like globalization and new technologies have created the need for new styles of leadership. Traditional problem-solving techniques and top-down management styles are no longer dynamic enough to handle the increasingly complex business dilemmas facing today’s leaders. As a result, leading well today is akin to sailing a small boat, with unpredictable winds buffeting you from all directions.
This article presents practical steps for mapping and effectively managing seemingly conflicting business priorities known as organizational paradoxes.
According to Merriam Webster, a paradox is:
- a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true;
- an argument that apparently derives self-contradictory conclusions by valid deduction from acceptable premises; or
- a person, situation, or action having seemingly contradictory qualities or phases.
Within the context of business, a paradox:
- consists of two interdependent issues that recur over time.
- requires you to make choices that affect both issues.
- can easily be mismanaged, if over-focus on one issue creates negative consequences for the interrelated issue.
Admittedly, paradoxes are nothing new. For centuries, companies have struggled with the need to balance competing agendas: increasing revenues while controlling expenses; faithfully executing strategic goals while simultaneously managing the realities of daily business. You get the picture.
What’s brought this issue to the forefront for leaders, however, is the increasingly chaotic business and economic conditions in which we all must operate. The old model of defining a problem, creating a solution and then implementing it is woefully insufficient for managing today’s paradoxes–because it addresses only one issue at a time, instead of managing both sides together.
Striking a Balance: A Guide to Mapping Paradoxes
When you have a true business paradox, use these steps to evaluate and manage both sides:
- Identify stakeholders. Who is affected by the paradox? Who is capable of influencing outcomes? Who needs to be involved in the process of designing the process for managing it?
- Once you’ve identified stakeholders, invite them to a brainstorming session to discuss creative solutions to an ongoing business issue (don’t tell them what the issue is–the process works better without preplanning).
- Create a paradox map.
- To start your meeting, draw two intersecting lines (one horizontal, one vertical) on a whiteboard and, at each end of the horizontal line, write the terms that describe the two sides of your paradox (e.g., “Change” and “Stability”). At the top of the vertical line write “Benefits,” and at the bottom of it write “Negative Consequences.”
- List Benefits. Brainstorm the possible benefits of focusing exclusively on the left issue (e.g., Change). As participants generate ideas, write them in the upper left-hand quadrant
- Keep the ideas flowing by asking open-ended questions, like: “What are other possible benefits of organizational change?”
- Repeat the benefits-brainstorming process for the other side of your paradox (e.g., Stability) and record responses in the upper right-hand quadrant.
- List Negative Consequences. Use questions like: “What would happen if we completely ignored the need for organizational change, or if we never changed any of our processes, products, or services?” to detail the negative effects of over-focusing on one side of the paradox. Record these in the lower left-hand quadrant.
- Repeat the brainstorming process for the other side of your paradox.
- Examine Your Map. Facilitate a discussion about what your paradox map tells you about your company. Ask questions like:
- What does this map show you?
- Which should we do: focus on the issue on the right or the issue on the left? Why?
- As a group, which issue do we value more? Why?
- How should we proceed?
- Define a Process for Maintaining a Healthy Tension. As you discuss the implications of your paradox, individuals who naturally favor one side or the other will begin to see the potential upsides and downsides of their tendencies.
- The process of mapping will help you begin to break down the subconscious process of rationalizing their bias toward their favored issue.
- Once everyone understands the potential benefits and concerns of over-focusing on just one side of the paradox, you can begin to explore options for creating a “healthy tension”–balancing both sides of the paradox to maintain an equilibrium that’s in everyone’s best interest.
- The mapping process will not help you solve a paradox; by its very nature, a paradox can’t be solved. But by opening employees’ minds to the benefits and negative impacts, you can facilitate productive conversations for the best ways to manage it.
Lead Your Business to a More Successful Future
Maintaining a healthy tension between the two issues of a paradox is a little like sailing a small boat on a windy day. If the wind fills your sails and starts tipping the boat, you and your staff need to jump to the other side, hang over the edge and hold onto the ropes. Eventually, the wind will shift again and you’ll have to hop over to the other side of your boat to stay afloat. As long as the winds change, you’ll have to adjust your operations accordingly.
A strong relationship with a staffing partner is critical to succeeding in today’s–and tomorrow’s–operating environment. As your company’s needs continue to become more fluid, a trusted staffing partner can help you:
- stay flexible;
- quickly access the specialized expertise you need;
- keep your organization (i.e., your boat) balanced and on course.