Paradox is creative opposition. It includes such mind twisters as complex simplicity, isolated integration, and structured freedom. Generally when we hear these seemingly inconsistent ideas, we are paralyzed and struggle to move past the concept. We are driven to the easy approach of just picking one or the other (the “or”). We all seem to need help from thinking of paradoxes as contradictions to thinking of them as complements. It is hard because paradoxes go against the grain and require us to shift our thinking. The fruitful tension of the “and” versus the “or” of paradox can give birth to new ideas. The reason paradox is so important is because almost every new strategy gets stuck in translation around a major paradox or two that sends people to opposite polarizing corners instead of creating a new platform for change where the paradox itself is the fuel for change. It is critical to see paradox as a breakthrough tool for strategy execution.
Today an energy company in the midst of low market prices struggles in the paradox of “cost competiveness or safety.” It seems an innocent statement, yet somewhere in the desire to pick one is the lost conversation about where safety standards that add unnecessary cost need to be challenged and where safety practices exist that can make us even more cost competitive. A second is a national restaurant holding company that has been successful with longstanding, stable processes that now must change to meet the needs of the changing marketplace. This organization is completely stuck in the paradox of “prescription or judgment” at the restaurant level. This restaurant dilemma breaks down into a pithy statement of “just do your job,” which predictably has everyone at an impasse about which job that is – the just-follow-orders of the “prescription” (proven, brand-consistent practices) job, or the entrepreneurism (local innovation for growth) of the “use-your-best-judgment” job?
By refining the acceptance of paradox as a breakthrough creative process, you can build ritual around the “and” versus the “or,” create repeatable practices for defining the “and,” provide examples where opposites working together are good (hot fudge sundae – hot and cold together), and reframe the paradox so that it doesn’t break things apart; it actually builds the muscle that can be used to accelerate engagement and the execution of critical strategies.