Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How Leaders Manage the Paradox in Work

In a previous blog, I pointed out that a common approach to addressing any issue or problem that arises at work is to ask, what's the problem? Depending on the complexity of the problem, most of us then go through some problem-solving process to arrive at a solution. We then implement the solution in an attempt to solve the problem. This step-by-step problem-solving process works very well when we have a traditional problem to solve, such as whom to hire, which city to build the new plant in, or which vendor to select for the new IT project. Yet, traditional problem solving does not work when dealing with a paradox. That’s because a paradox has four unique characteristics. A paradox:

  1. Consists of two interdependent issues
  2. Has issues that recur over time
  3. Requires choices be made that consider both issues
  4. Is mismanaged when over-focus on one issue creates negative consequences

Listed below are the top ten paradoxes leaders mismanage, usually by addressing only one issue at a time, instead of managing them together:

1. Set uniform/standard procedures and meet customized/individual needs.

2. Cut expenses and maintain productivity.

3. Follow mandates from the central office and address local concerns.

4. Focus on long-term goals and execute short-term objectives.

5. Push for change and provide stability.

6. Maintain customer satisfaction and increase sales.

7. Motivate employees and increase accountability.

8. Stimulate creative innovation and improve existing products.

9. Foster individual initiative and improve teamwork.

10. Excel at work and maintain a fulfilling home life

Do you struggle with any of these? Of course you do. So the real question is not whether you deal with them, it’s how well do you manage them interdependently?

To Strike or Not to Strike

The nurses at the hospital wanted a pay raise, while the administrators wanted to cut costs. Because both parties justified their entrenched positions, neither identified the paradoxical nature of their dilemma. They fought fire with fire, the nurses went on strike, and everybody got burned.

In their two-year study of these New Zealand hospital leaders, Professors Kan and Parry found that legitimizing a paradox was the subconscious process people used to rationalize their biased view of the issues. (1) This tunnel vision led to “divergent realities” – the inability of either party to see any benefits of the opposing position, nor the side effects of over-focusing on their own position at the expense of the other side. This created a negative filter in their mind through which they perceived the changes in the hospital, and eventually a costly strike.

In another hospital 9,000 miles away...

Dan, was having problems getting the nurses union (who wanted to focus on improving overall patient care) and hospital administrators (who were intent on lowering expenses to stay competitive) at one of his hospitals to work out their differences. He invited representatives from both parties to a “negotiation meeting.” He then guided the nurses and administrators to map the quality and expense paradox (using the steps described in this chapter). He told me that mapping the paradox averted a strike, saved his healthcare chain millions of dollars, and may have saved patient lives in the process.

The simple mapping process Dan employed enabled both parties to see the benefits of the opposing position and the possible side effects of over-focusing on their own position at the expense of the other side. This expansive view of the issues created a positive filter through which everyone saw the possibility to achieve the common goal of improving patient care and quality at the same time. Let's see how you can do what he did.

Map the Paradox

Once you have identified your key paradox, you are ready to map the paradox. The simple steps of this process are outlined below:

A. Identify key stakeholders

B. Outline a paradox map

C. Conduct a paradox process meeting

  1. Brainstorm the benefits of both issues
  2. Brainstorm the negative consequences of over-focusing on either issue
  3. Gain buy-in from opposite sides

A. Identify key stakeholders

The process begins when you consider who needs involved. Identify stakeholders who are directly affected by, capable of influencing, or most concerned about the issues involved. The ideal number of attendees is between six and 12. For example, a senior bank executive was in the process of rolling out a new commercial banking strategy (Commercial banking provides services to businesses, such as a accepting deposits and providing loans). She felt that the new strategy might cause her team to lose focus of their existing retail banking goals. (Retail banking consists of those banking services offered to individual customers, such as savings accounts, personal loans, check cashing…). She therefore invited a few bank managers, senior loan officers, lead tellers, customer service representatives to her a meeting.

B. Outline a paradox map

Prior to your meeting, draw a paradox map on a flip chart as seen below. The paradox map is the primary tool that you’ll be using throughout the entire process. It was originally developed by Dr. Johnson.

Paradox Map


C. Conduct a paradox process meeting

After thanking everyone for attending, inform him or her that you have two issues with which you would like their assistance. Show them the paradox map outlined on your flip chart and write the names of the two issues in the left and the right boxes, respectively. For example, the left box could be retail banking, and the right box, commercial banking. Explain to the group that you would like to step through a process to help everyone understand the relationship between these two issues. Do not discuss paradox at this time. It is more effective to step through the process before talking about it.

1. Brainstorm the benefits of both issues

Ask the team to brainstorm all the possible benefits of focusing on the left issue. Explain that whatever they say, you will write it down. Now is NOT the time to process or discuss what they say. Write everything they say in the upper left quadrant using a green magic marker. It is critical to keep the discussion to an absolute minimum. This step is about idea generation not idea evaluation. (A manager ignored this advice and kept trying to process opinions as they created their paradox map. His team completely shut down. When people don’t buy into the process, they won’t buy into the outcome of that process.) So keep them talking by asking open-ended questions, such as What might be all the possible benefits of paying attention to this issue? Continue brainstorming the answers to these questions for five minutes.

At the end of five minutes, do the exact same thing for the right issue. Write their answers in the upper right quadrant using a green magic marker.

2. Brainstorm the negative consequences of over-focusing on either issues

Ask the group to brainstorm possible side effects and negative consequences of paying too much attention to the left issue at the expense of the right issue. Keep the ideas flowing by encouraging them to brainstorm the answers to questions such as What might happen if we paid so much attention to the left issue that the right issue was completely ignored? Write down everything they say in the lower left quadrant of the flip chart using a red magic marker. This brainstorming step also takes five minutes.

At the end of these five minutes, brainstorm all the possible negative consequences of over-focusing on the right issue at the expense of the left issue. Write down everything they say in the lower right quadrant.

3. Gain Buy-in From Opposite Sides

After spending five minutes filling in each of the four quadrants, facilitate a discussion about what they see. Ask them questions such as: What is this map telling you? Is focusing on the right issue or left issue the best way to continue? Do you find yourself feeling more of an advocate for one issue or the other? Do we as a group seem to value the left or the right issue more? How should we proceed?

During the debrief, those who favor one issue begin to see the upside and downside of both sides. This breaks the subconscious process of rationalizing their bias toward their favored issue. For example, imagine that you are a strong advocate for your bank's retail banking strategy, isn't it possible that you'll be more open to the commercial banking strategy when you see all the potential benefits of commercial banking, as well as the possible negative consequences of over-focusing on the retail banking strategy? Of course. That's why this process works. Individuals with an open-mind begin to understand the big picture and appreciate the pluses and minuses of both issues. (A closed mind is a wonderful thing to lose.)

In future blogs will discuss the paradox plot and how to manage the paradoxical tension over time.

Be eXtraordinary,

P.S. The web-based eXpansive Leadership Method (XLM) Assessment measures paradox in leadership using the “Agility Score.” Within minutes of completing your assessment (which takes less than 20 minutes to fill out), you can download your highly personalized Profile - a comprehensive, 21 + page report and customized action plan in PDF format. Go to: http://xlmassessment.com/ to read about the assessment.

1. Melanie M. Kan and Ken W. Parry; Identifying paradox: A grounded theory of leadership in overcoming resistance to change, The Leadership Quarterly, 15, 2004, 467–491.


No comments: