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Book synthesis

Accepting paradoxes

The world today is so complex that we are forced to grapple with paradoxical injunctions: esprit de corps is vital but so is giving voice to your individuality; you have to ringfence your current activities but come up with new ideas for the future; and you have to make a success of your personal and professional life… How can you do all this without losing the plot?

When you are faced with a paradox, your brain frames the alternatives as a binary choice: it comes down in favor of one option and rules out the other. But this creates conflict, since resolving a paradox cannot be simplistic. Quite the opposite, in fact: the solution lies in incorporating possibilities that appear to be mutually exclusive but that are actually interdependent – like the two sides of a coin. So, looking after your team means you have to look after yourself, and planning for the future means not side-stepping the present (and vice versa). Paradoxes, in short, are double-edged. If you deny their existence, they give rise to anxiety and frustration – and they only get stronger.If, on the other hand, you take these paradoxes on board,they can be used as an opportunity to create, innovate and grow.

Based on

Based on Both / And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems by Wendy K. Smith and Marianne W. Lewis (Harvard Business Review Press, 2022) 

Coping with an increasingly paradoxical world

The concept of the paradox – defined as the simultaneous, persistent co-existence of contradictory, interdependent elements – is not new.It has been the subject of study for millennia, and gave birth to the symbolism of Yin and Yang in China.

Mais l’environnement actuel rend les paradoxes encore plus saillants pour trois raisons :

  1. The exponential pace of change, linked to technological progress, is heightening tensions between everyday management and anticipating a fast-approaching future.
  2. The increasing scarcity of resources (especially natural resources) is fanning the collaboration-versus-competition dilemma.
  3. The explosion in the number of different opinions that are now expressed, the result of globalization and new technology, amplifies differences ad infinitum.

Paradoxes are now more acute, and leave no area untouched:

  • Performing paradoxes bring to light (seemingly) irreconcilable priorities. In a business, for example, this would be the need to reconcile CSR and profits.
  • Learning paradoxes with a temporal dimension lay bare the tensions between the short and long term, tradition and modernity, the need for stability and the need for change.
  • Belonging paradoxes underline the struggle for identity for individuals with torn loyalties between groups with opposing ambitions and interests.
  • Organizing paradoxes refer to problems in the way activities are structured. How can you encourage risk-taking without throwing caution to the wind? How can you exercise effective control while retaining your agility? And how can you decentralize without creating silos?
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Marianne Gerard
Published by Marianne Gerard
Marianne graduated from HEC in 1998 and is now a freelance journalist specializing in management and higher education. What really fires her up is the human dimension and she is c taking a psychology course at Rennes 2 University.