Embracing Paradox

“All of us like to think that human affairs are essentially rational. … The wealth of experience that fails to support this notion never seems to faze us. … That human affairs usually work not rationally but paradoxically.”

“… because of the sense of omnipotence that plagues American management, the belief that no event or situation is too complex or too unpredictable to be brought under management control.” (Quotes from Richard Farson, Management of the Absurd.

The ability to “ride paradox,” is one of the four management behaviors that define Adaptive Leadership (See also “And” Leadership). We live in a seeming culture of absolutes—for example the current rhetoric of our political parties—but if fact most people recognize that reality imposes a lot of grey. If  we think human (or business) affairs are rational, then we attack everything as a problem to be solved by highlighting the issue, gathering facts, looking for root causes, formulating solutions, and implement the solution—problem solved and on to the next problem.

But what astute managers have learned is that most serious issues are not problems, they are paradoxes that arise again and again. Paradoxes aren’t solved once and for all, they require balancing actions again and again. There is even difficulty finding a word for the outcome of a paradox. A “problem” has a solution, but what can we call the outcome of a paradox—a “temporary solution”? The best word seems to be “resolution,” which has a dynamic aspect to it that solution doesn’t. So, problems have solutions, paradoxes have resolutions.

Take for example the issue of short-term versus long-term focus. There isn’t a single answer to this issue; there is a balancing that needs to occur from one time frame to another. When a company is in trouble financially, working on a 5-year strategic plan probably isn’t a good use of management time.

Agile proponents, and oponents, get hung up on the issue of architecture—to develop architecture up front or to evolve architecture over time. This isn’t a problem, it’s a paradox. There isn’t a single solution to the question, but a series of balanced resolutions that depend on the specific organizational and project or product context. Ultimately, the architecture issue requires a balancing of early skeleton work combined with evolutionary updates. Balancing early versus evolution makes management more difficult than a black and white problem solution, but balancing resolutions over time will deliver far better performance.

The ability to differentiate between problems and paradoxes and the further ability to balance paradoxical resolutions time after time is one of the defining characteristics of an Adaptive Leader. This ability doesn’t come easily because discernment and judgment are involved. Paradoxes that Agile managers face include:

  • Accountability versus Autonomy
  • Hierarchical control versus Self-organization
  • Predictability versus Adaptability
  • Efficiency versus Responsiveness

None of these is a problem. None of these have easy solutions. Any resolution must contain elements of both—delicate balancing acts that change over time. Take the issue of predictability versus adaptability that crops up on many Agile projects. The traditional “we must be within 5% (or whatever number) of our schedule or cost plan just doesn’t drive teams in the right direction if we want them to learn and adapt over time. However, not giving any predictions to management doesn’t work either. Factors that might influence one’s balancing of predictability and adaptability include:

  • The particular measures used—value, cost, schedule, etc.
  • The level of precision—epics or stories.
  • The time frame—iterations, releases, or vision-maps (roadmaps).
  • The relative importance of the measures (it might be value on one project, cost on another).
  • Timing. Near the end of a project schedule might dominate, whereas in the beginning value might.

Living with paradoxes means giving up the notion that we are in control and can dictate (plan) the future. However, neither can we take a totally cavalier “let’s wait and see what happens” approach. Living with paradox means planning, but not becoming wedded to that plan. It means sensing when actual events override the plan and responding with the appropriate “resolution”. Learning to do this well is a keystone of Adaptive Leadership.