In a remarkable article (*) the renowned strategy consulting firm McKinsey & Company emphasizes the importance of embracing the paradoxes of organizational life. This is not yet another upbeat management article – as is often the case – about ‘raising performance’ and ‘increasing shareholder value’ in a very narrow and one-sided way, but one that points out that one-sided actions often have the opposite effect. Effective leadership is, however, about being able to balance between opposites. This is not just a statement but is also supported by hard data.

The author Colin Price focuses on three paradoxes in management:

  • Business leaders should promote a sense of stability in order to make change happen.
  • Organizations are more likely to succeed if they simultaneously control and empower their employees.
  • Business cultures that rightly encourage consistency and common standards must also allow variability – and even failure – that goes with innovation.

This implies an important shift in the traditional management thinking. It means ‘values’ that were previously discarded regain their place. Usually, all the focus is on the preservation of standards and consistency, while deviations and variability are usually seen as sources of mistakes and waste. Now it is recognized that it’s better to give some room to experiment and to ‘mess about’, so that creativity and initiative come into the picture again. The great thing about this article is that it doesn’t make a complete turnabout (i.e. ‘control is completely outdated, long live the creative chaos’), which is so often the case in alternative (management) theories, but it emphasizes learning to balance between these opposites. Values ​​such as ‘change’, ‘control’ and ‘consistency’ remain valid, but lose their untouchable monopoly. This way of thinking also recognizes that without the counterbalance of their opposites, specific values are too often tipping to the extremes making the above values dysfunctional and counterproductive. It’s all about balancing and dosing according to the situation. Sometimes this leads to new ways of working, like the automotive company that developed a hybrid approach with clear and hard boundaries, but within these boundaries there is almost complete freedom to innovate and grow.

The author of the article indicates that at first sight embracing paradoxes can be uncomfortable, because, in a sense, it is counterintuitive and contrary to our linear, logical way of thinking. It is an art: the art of paradoxical life and management or as the author calls it ‘the art of plate spinning’. However, in practice it can be quite challenging not to tip over to the extremes. I recently had a moment of reflection with a management team about a major organizational change. This management team had already explicitly embraced the principles of balancing opposites however,  now it proved to be difficult to hold on to both sides of the coin simultaneously. The top team had initially set out a framework for organizational change in a very clear and compelling way (top-down ‘driving’ change) They had shared these with senior management and the rest of the organization, giving senior management a clear mandate to take this further (bottom-up ‘releasing’ change). Subsequently, the top team took off its hands of the whole process in the expectation that senior mangement would go ahead with the necessary creativity and entrepreneurship. However, instead of an explosion of creative energy, nothing happened. Senior management was obviously still ‘waiting till the boss says what to do’. It was concluded that the balance between ‘driving’ and ‘releasing’ is an ongoing and simultaneous process. This can only happen in a close and ongoing dialogue in which the pre-set framework for the organizational change is validated and confirmed, while at the same time creative new ideas are stimulated and welcomed.

Colin Price concludes his article with these wise words: “Far more high- performing are those leaders who welcome the inconvenient contractions of organizational life.” A conclusion that I can only endorse and one of the key challenges for the leaders of today and tomorrow.

 (*) Colin Price, ‘Leadership and the art of plate spinning’, McKinsey Quarterly, November 2012

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