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Reconciling and Managing the Paradoxes

Creating an organizational culture in which innovation and individual accountability can flourish in tandem requires a different set of skills – the ability to recognize, reconcile and manage the paradoxes inherent in change.

Leading and implementing major change initiatives while continuing to deliver high performance is a paradoxical process. While organizations must concentrate on the things that make it successful in today’s marketplace, they must also simultaneously be focussed on opportunities and future scenarios in other potential profit arenas.

They must perpetuate existing “best practices” while also encouraging risk taking in the search for new and better ways of doing business. And they must ensure current expenditures on “business as usual” while also investing appropriately in the freedom to create, explore and innovate.

Successful enterprises of the past learned how to make these paradoxes, albeit fewer in number, work to their advantage. Whether it was doing more with less, working smarter not harder, or cooperating to compete, they figured out how to advance the mission. This reconciliation of apparently contradictory notions was their recipe for surviving and thriving in difficult and troubling times.

Leaders of the future must now find the balance (or perhaps the “the comfort zone”) between such understandable but opposing forces as order and disorder, unity and disunity, discipline and freedom. This strategic reconciliation is not easy and, mishandled, can confuse, annoy, stress and generally “turn off” the workforce.

Here are some further examples of the paradoxes that must be properly managed in a time of accelerating change and hyper-competitive market forces:

  • Control must be reconciled with trust as you manage both certainty and ambiguity;
  • Guidance must be balanced with freedom, operational parameters with the removal of undue limitations and restrictive bureaucratic constraints;
  • Goals must be framed to sustain incremental yet continuous improvements as well as to stimulate and stretch people to challenge the status quo and innovate;
  • Prudence and conservatism must govern resource allocation while experimentation and risk taking in pursuit of new ideas must also be encouraged;
  • The organization must feel confident but not too confident, hence emergent threats and fears must be reconciled with pride in past accomplishments and loyalty to the organization;
  • The establishment of predictable processes to ensure the requisite discipline and execution must be balanced with the need to embrace unexpected events and mistakes as opportunities for learning.

These are the conundrums facing smart leaders today. How do you reconcile the necessity for some degree of bureaucratic standards and rules with an increasingly dominant need for the freedom to think, imagine and initiate? Wherein lies the trade-off between organizational discipline and focus and individual flexibility and adaptability? How do you mange less and achieve more?

Smart leaders must develop a deeper level of understanding of the inevitable convergence of these paradoxes and often counterintuitive notions while honing the skills required to explain them to those who will be affected. The next (big) job is to “operationalize” these seeming contradictions to the benefit of the organization.

Jim Murray
CEO, optimal solutions international
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