4 min read

Remember the pushme-pullme in the story of Dr. DoLittle? It was like a llama, only it had two heads and no back end. Much of organizational life is like that animal with forces pulling us and pushing us in conflicting directions. Pressures from different constituent demands place inconsistent and confusing pressures on the decision making processes of the organization.

Traditional problem-solving techniques and strategic planning have focused on analyzing contending demands and trying to make the “right” choice. Paradox theory, however, assumes that organizations can find ways to creatively respond to contradictory demands without the need to completely resolve them. While the either/or approach may help reach immediate objectives, paradox theory contends that if the organization is to last over the long haul it must be able to continuously satisfy competing demands.

In a recent issue of the Academy of Management Review, Wendy Smith and Marianne Lewis define paradox as “contradictory yet interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time.”1 This definition emphasizes three key components of organizational paradoxes:

  1. They have to do with demands that are inherently contradictory. Though, when viewed in isolation, they both make total sense.
  2. These conflicting forces are necessarily connected to one another. And therein is the problem. One way to resolve conflict is to separate, but total separation is impossible because both forces are part of the same system.
  3. These contradictory forces persist over time. They’re not temporary aberrations.

What is, perhaps, unique about the paradox perspective is that it sees paradox as a natural and necessary aspect of organizational life. These built-in organizational paradoxes usually appear in one or more of five flavors: affiliation, adaptation, coordination, implementation, and culture.

  • Affiliation paradoxes are what you run into when the organization must change to meet contemporary market demands, yet, at the same time, there is a powerful pull to hold onto the past from which the organization has acquired its sense of identity.
  • Adaptation paradoxes refer to the need to adapt and learn and stay relevant to the current context while simultaneously maintaining some level of control, as too much innovation, too fast, can be just as bad as no innovation.2
  • Coordination paradoxes deal with the struggle between the individual’s need for autonomous “space” and the organization’s need for the individual to subject his or her preferences in support of the organization as a whole.
  • Implementation paradoxes have to do with the need to spend time and effort investigating and planning and the simultaneous urgency of doing something now.
  • Cultural paradoxes are a little different from the previous types in that they are not an inherent aspect of organization but, instead, are rooted in the local culture. An example of a cultural paradox would be the need for leaders to project authority while simultaneously revealing their true selves (See for example Dr. Yorkovich’s article: Respect — Part I). The reason this is a cultural paradox is that it’s largely defined by a particular culture’s leadership model.3

Paradox theory assumes that such tensions will always be present and that, in today’s volatile organizational context, a better response than the either/or thinking of the past would be to find ways to creatively satisfy these conflicting demands simultaneously. I will talk about that in part two next week.

What do you think? Has eitheror thinking frustrated your attempts to resolve organizational problems? Can you share some paradoxical demands that you have experienced in your organization? I would love to hear about them. Please add your comments in the comments section below.

Sources Cited

1Smith, W. K., & Lewis, M. W. (2011). Toward a Theory of Paradox: A Dynamic Equilibrium Model of Organizing. Academy of Management Review, 35(2), 381-403. This and next week’s posts were inspired by this article.

2See for example Google Can Survive Too Much Innovation. You Can’t by Robert Sher, Forbes Leadership Forum, May 15, 2012.

3For a discussion of this, see Geert Hofstede, (1993). Cultural constraints in management theories. The Academy of Management Executive, 7(1), 81–94

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.

The lead photo was taken by the author in Aguaray, Argentina.