Paradoxical thinking helps us to work with seeming opposites at the same time. This enables and energises a system to perform at a higher level. All opposites are, however, not paradoxical. There are contradictions — different and opposing forces — where one cancels out the other.
The logical structure of a contradiction is EITHER/OR. If one is true, the other is false. We cannot have it both ways. Here are a few contradictions often found in assumptions about strategy work:
- Giving people grand plans and stretch targets without the necessary resources.
- We can play on both red and black at the same time. Often leadership does not want to take the risk of deciding on one strategy and therefore it puts money on contradictory strategies. In matters of strategy we have to choose. If we are engaging in small-scale experimentation to test the viability of new ideas, we must inform direct stakeholders to prevent confusion, subtle sabotage or outright resistance.
- We develop the plans, others execute. This contradiction explains why plans cooked up only by a small (usually senior) team are rarely implemented.
- Strategy is fixed. Strategy-making is not an event, but a process. Sustainable strategies are tinkered with and updated continuously.
- We don’t have to set time aside for strategy-making (it is part of our daily work-routine). Not spending enough resources (including time and money) on strategy increases the chances of failure. It also indicates that the management team is not serious about strategy.
- We have a strategy based on opportunity. We grasp opportunities spontaneously as they come along. We therefore make up our strategy as we go along. There is no such thing as a sustainable strategy made up on the spur of the moment.
- Strategy execution is fast. Sustainable strategies take time to develop and even longer to implement. The best strategies often show little return in the short run, but their worth becomes apparent in the longer run.
If you are forced to deal with contradictions as though they were paradoxes, i.e. as if both sides of the contradiction are true at the same time, it would lead to confusion and ultimately demoralisation [or dejection] — where we use most or all available psychological energy in the struggle to reconcile the irreconcilable.
In developing sustainable strategies, we should exploit the power of paradox and avoid contradictions.
Source: Ungerer, M., Pretorius, M. & Herholdt, J. 2011. Viable Business Strategies: A Fieldbook for Leaders. Randburg: Knowres Publishing. This is an edited version of an article which appeared in FinWeek, 13 September 2012.