Managing Paradox

Managing Paradox



n the last five years, managers have been told to empower employees, adopt new paradigms and, in general, to shape up. But a new batch of books gives managers some unlikely advice: Embrace paradox and absurdity.

Managers have too long sought rationality in their organizational pursuits, according to Richard Farson, author of Management of the Absurd. Instead of viewing the Harvard Business School, General Motors and Robert McNamara's Defense Department Whiz Kids as management models, Farson argues that "theater of the absurd" playwrights-Pinter, Ionesco, Genet, Beckett-are more appropriate teachers. Farson says that "life is absurd, that human affairs usually work not rationally but paradoxically."

People learn not from their failures but from their successes, Farson says, and from the failure of others. He argues that big changes are easier to make than small ones and that organizations that need help most will benefit from it least. Farson concludes that people respect bold moves and are more likely to buy into a change big enough to withstand attempts to counter it. He also concludes that unhealthy organizations have great difficulty changing, even though they may need it. In contrast, the healthier an organization, the more it is capable of change.

Farson's goal is to move managers away from rational, logical, linear thinking. Things are not good or bad or true or false. Managers must accept-and embrace-the coexistence of opposites.

The Paradox Principles by William Dauphinais and his colleagues at the Price Waterhouse Change Integration Team offers principles for managing paradox. One paradox is that change requires stability. All too often organizations do not capitalize on their own sources of stability, such as organizational culture, their employees and their core competencies. Another is that organizations must focus on individuals in order to make the organization as a whole effective. The book recommends increased emphasis on hiring high potential individuals and systematically developing them throughout their careers.

Dauphinais also points out that in this era of empowering employees, leadership is more crucial than ever. The role of the new leader is to establish and communicate a vision and strategy, set objectives, motivate people, create a productive culture, develop the organization and initiate transformations.

This flexible view of the world was stimulated, in part, by Margaret Wheatley several years ago in her book Leadership and the New Science. Wheatley's first book applied three sciences-quantum physics, self-organizing systems and the chaos theory-to the study of organizations. Wheatley is back with a new volume, A Simpler Way, which urges managers to "think differently about how to organize human activities." Instead of an orderly image of the world, Wheatley presents the universe as "a living, creative experimenting experience." Life self-organizes as networks and patterns, and structures emerge without external imposition or direction. Organization, Wheatley says, wants to happen.

For those seeking to create "self-organizing" workforces, Wheatley provides no specific guidelines because her goal is to encourage managers to "lighten up" and develop a different world view. "Human organizations emerge from processes that can be comprehended but never controlled," Wheatley writes. "Life accepts only partners, not bosses."

John Kao, author of Jamming, says managers should think creatively because they continue to be the linear, rational thinkers disparaged by Farson. Kao, a business consultant and former professor at the Harvard Business School, draws on his experience as a jazz musician. Organizational leaders need to jam more frequently, he says: "Take a theme, question, a notion, a whim, an idea, pass it around, break it up, put it together, turn it over, run it backward, fly with it as far as possible, out of sight, never retreating."

Jamming is a textbook on how to gain creativity. Kao offers an organizational creativity audit. He devotes chapters to clearing the mind and clearing a place for creativity, pointing to organizations which have designed their offices as creative environments. Kao describes Story Street Studios, a graphic design company in Cambridge, Mass., which has an airy, open office space with toys in the corner. Kao also discusses ways to encourage the "perpetually creative" organization.

But thinking paradoxically and creatively is not enough for today's manager, argues Jennifer James, author of Thinking in the Future Tense. She says leaders are preoccupied with the present and do not spend enough time anticipating the future. Thinking in the Future Tense points out skills that leaders of the future must master. James says managers must "see with new eyes" to recognize new patterns and trends. The manager of the future must become more flexible and change-oriented. Because the pace of change is more rapid than ever before, James argues that organizations and individuals must speed up their response time.

Traditional thinking, says Michael Gelb in his book Thinking for a Change, will not be of much value to managers in the new world. Gelb calls for "synvergent" thinking which combines focused, analytical thinking with free-flowing, imaginative thinking. Only by combining the best qualities of the right and left brain will managers be able to deal with change, ambiguity and paradox. Gelb suggests mind mapping-a way to literally draw one's thoughts together with pencil and paper-as a good tool for problem-solving and communication.

Just as Wheatley argues that managers must rethink the universe, Stan Davis, author of the 10th anniversary edition of Future Perfect, says managers must rethink time, space and mass to gain a competitive advantage for their organizations.

Instead of defining time from the perspective of the producer, Davis suggests viewing time from the perspective of the consumer. Consumers want products delivered at their convenience, not the producer's convenience. Since its original publication in 1987, both the public and private sectors have worked hard to reduce transaction times and speed the delivery of products to customers. Just as time has shifted to the convenience of customers, place has also shifted. Customers can now shop from home by phone, television or the computer.

Many managers might find themselves wishing the good old days of predictability, command and control and hierarchy, but they must now think differently. They must learn to embrace a world of paradox and absurdity.

Contributing editor Mark A. Abramson is chairman of Leadership Inc. and a member of the faculty, Department of Public Administration, George Mason University. His e-mail address is