Or, if you want to get to grips with organizations you need to use both ‘ands at the same time!
In Informal Coalitions, I argue that managers need to "embrace paradox" as part of a complexity-aware, change-leadership agenda. By that I mean that it is important for them to recognize the irresolvable tensions that exist in every aspect of organizational life. To do so opens the door to quite a different understanding of organizational dynamics from that which dominates conventional management thinking. And it further exposes the flaws in those approaches that view the search for clarity, predictability and control as the essence of orgnizational leadership.
However, earlier this week, a friend (@rotkapchen) related a Twitter conversation that she had had with someone who is well known in the complexity field. It seems that they had dismissed the notion of paradox in organizations, seeing it as a "mystical concept" that is unrelated to organizational complexity.
I felt that I couldn’t let this pass without comment. So here's why I think that paradox is a fundmental dynamic of all organizations.
Organizations are complex social processes
From an informal coalitions perspective, the ‘stuff’ of organizations – such as actions, outputs and outcomes - emerge from the ongoing, self-organizing dynamics of people interacting together. These include both the formal designs (strategies, structures etc) and the hidden, messy and informal "shadow-side" aspects of ‘real-world organizations’. This is a complex process. And, most importantly, it is a complex social process. It is also a pattern-forming and pattern-using process. The interplay of formal and informal interactions across any population (such as an ‘organization’) generates patterns of thinking, feeling and acting that lead to expectancy. That is, these interactions create tendencies for people to think, feel and act in particular ways. People are aware of some of these tendencies but others are unconsciously held.
The above, self-organizing process is inherently paradoxical. Amongst other things:
- The patterns of thought and action that emerge from people’s ongoing interactions tend, at the same time, to ‘shape’ the nature, content and outcomes of those interactions. Ralph Stacey refers to this general dynamic as "forming" and "being formed" at the same time.
- The tendency is for this process to lead to the replication and reinforcement of existing patterns (stability/continuity). At the same time, the capacity exists, within this same process, for pattern switching to occur spontaneously and novel outcomes to emerge (instability/change).
- The process is necessarily co-operative in nature, as people participate in the rituals and routines of everyday, conversational interaction (co-operation). At the same time, the existence of personal self-interests and necessarily diverse organizational agendas make the process contentious and potentially conflictual (competition).
- The process both enables joint action (enabling) and, at the same time, constrains it within mutually acceptable (power-related) limits and established patterns of thought and action (constraining).
- Individual identities affect the pattern, content and quality of people’s interactions with other people, and hence the ways in which the organizational world is constructed (individual). At the same time, individual identities are formed by this social world. Individuals are understood in terms of their relations with others and identity is formed between rather than within people (social).
- The notion of identity itself combines the paradoxical (i.e. simultaneous and contradictory) combination of sameness (inclusion) and, at the same time, difference (exclusion).
- 'Organization-wide’ (and ‘wider’!) outcomes (global) emerge from the widespread interplay of one-to-one and small-group conversations (local). And, consistent with the ‘forming/being formed’ dynamic mentioned earlier, these global patterns simultaneously affect the pattern, content and outcomes of the ongoing local interactions.
- The above interactions, outputs and outcomes embody ‘official’ processes and themes (rational/ formal/structured) which, at the same time, are inextricably interwoven with shadow-side processes and themes (a-rational/informal/unstructured).
- Leaders have the authority to ‘command’ action, whether by imposition or involvement (in control). At the same time, they cannot determine how people perceive, interpret, evaluate and act upon those ‘commands’ in the immediacy of their local circumstances (not in control).
- In terms of organizational design, there are two fundamental and opposing requirements of all organizations. First, there is a need to divide up activities and allocate responsibility for carrying these out to specialist units or individuals (differentiation). At the same time, there is a need to co-ordinate those tasks effectively and align people’s efforts (integration).
- In relation to strategic management, there is a need to achieve current performance objectives (current) and, at the same time, to change the business to deal with emerging challenges (future) – with all of this happening in the ‘now’ of what Stacey calls "the living present".
- Similarly irresolvable tensions exist between making best use of available resources and capabilities (an ‘inside-out’ or internal perspective) and, at the same time, meeting others’ diverse demands (an ‘outside-in’ or external perspective). Here, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are defined by the ‘authorized version’ of the collective identity that has itself been constructed through the conversational process.
- Within this broad framework, there are other ‘strategic dimensions’ of performance that exist in tension with each other. Most obvious amongst these are the tension between performance delivery (task orientation), and people and organizational development (people orientation); and that between discovering new ways to add value (innovation/growth orientation) and maintaining discipline (process orientation).
- Operationally, people are similarly faced with apparently contradictory demands, which nevertheless co-exist and are irreducible to a single focus. These often appear as "mixed messages" that have to be made sense of and acted upon in local, everyday interactions. Amongst those that I mentioned in Informal Coalitions are: innovate and, at the same time, avoid mistakes; use your initiative and, at the same time, stick to the rules; look for opportunities and, at the same time, avoid risks; commit to action and, at the same time, keep options open; be yourself and, at the same time, fit in; and so on. These dynamics are paradoxical. In each case, the self-contradictory and seemingly mutually exclusive conditions continue to operate together. Neither of them can be removed, nor can the tension be resolved in any other way.
- In relation to all of the above, leaders (or anyone else for that matter) can act with intent in relation to particular issues, events and occurrences. However, these intentions will be constrained by the intentions and actions of others. As such, whatever anyone might set out to achieve, there can be no certainty as to what will actually arise in practice. By now, I hope that it might be unnecessary to point out that this dynamic is also paradoxical. That is, intention and emergence are intimately linked in the complex social process of conversational interaction that we talk of as organization.
So, to conclude, paradox is endemic in all organizations. And, as Stacey (2007:15) similarly suggests, how managers perceive paradox is an important pointer to the way in which they understand organizational dynamics:
"The idea that, for success, paradoxes must be resolved, and that the tension they cause must be released, is part of the paradigm that equates success with the dynamics of stability, regularity and predictability. The notion that paradoxes can never be resolved, only lived with, leads to a view of organisational dynamics couched in terms of continuing tension-generating behaviour patterns that are both regular and irregular, both stable and unstable and both predictable and unpredictable, all at the same time, but which lead to creative novelty."
Ref: Stacey, R.D. (2007) Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics, 5Ed. FT Prentice Hall