University of Earth
Projects Overview (Explanations)
Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Discontinuity: Paradox management

Transformative Approaches Project


1. Acceptance of paradox

The challenges and dilemmas of modern society is pushing the theoreticians and philosophers of management to advocate a more constructive approach to paradox (see Charles Savage, Fifth Generation Management; Charles Baden-Fuller and John Stopford, Rejuvenating the Mature Corporation, London, Routledge, 1992; Charles Hampden-Turner, The Seven Cultures of Capitalism. New York, Doubleday, 1993) . As Charles Handy argues: "We need a new way of thinking about our problems and our futures. If the contradictions and surprises of paradox are going to be part of those futures, we should not be dismayed. The acceptance of paradox as a feature of life is the first step towards living with it and managing it." (1994, p. 17)

Although paradoxes and contradictions can be reduced to some degree according to Handy, they cannot be made to disappear nor can they be completely resolved until some new form of order emerges from the turbulence of the times. For him: "Paradoxes are like the weather, something to be lived with, not solved, the worst aspects mitigated, the best enjoyed and used as clues to the way forward. Paradox has to be accepted, coped with and made sense of, in life, in work, in community and among the nations." (1994, p. 18).

2. Balancing contradictions

The issue for Handy is how to balance contradictions and inconsistencies as an indication for a better approach to organization. He cites Scott Fiztgerald's remark that the test of a first class mind is the ability to hold two opposing ideas simultaneously and still be able to function. To clarify the situation he sets out to "frame the confusion" as the first step to doing something about it.

3. Nine principal paradoxes

In order to frame the confusion, Handy identifies nine paradoxes which are fundamental to the difficulties encountered at all levels of society at this time. These are:

(a) Paradox of intelligence: Although intelligence is widely recognized as the new form of wealth and property for corporations and nations, it does not behave like conventional forms of property or wealth. It is difficult to measure. It is impossible to redistribute it, at least in a short space of time, although it is also impossible to stop people acquiring it. Even when it is possible to share know-how, the supplier still retains it all. It is also difficult effectively to own someone else's intelligence.

(b) Paradox of work: Organizations want the most work for the least money, whilst individuals typically want the most money for the last work. Consequently organizations end up exporting unproductive work. Enforced idleness is therefore the price paid for efficiency, even though people need some productive activity to engage in. But the unused workers in society still have to be supplied with money to survive. In one way or another (and usually through taxation) these resources eventually come from the organizations which excluded them from work.

(c) Paradox of productivity: Productivity is achieved through increasing the amount and quality of work from ever fewer people. Those that are excluded from formal work by this process, then tend to seek a variety of ways to survive, whether through engaging in the informal or illegal economies, or doing things for themselves which otherwise they would have paid others to do. In conventional economic terms, an economy grows by converting unpriced work into priced (and therefore measurable) work. But increases in productivity effectively reduce the amount of work done although the economy still appears to grow. Pricing work tends ultimately to destroy work.

(d) Paradox of time: Time is no longer experienced in a simple coherent manner. Some people have too little time to do what they want to do; others have more time than they know what to do with. Organizations increasingly want fewer people to work longer hours, whilst people need to over work to earn sufficient to sustain the pattern of consumption that gives meaning to their lives, whilstlacking the time to appreciate them. Having converted time into a commodity, some people spend time to save money whereas others spend money to save time, possibly working fewer years to have more leisure later.

(e) Paradox of riches: The increase in the wealth of societies is characterized by population stability or decline, effectively producing fewer customers for their own products. The increasing proportion of the elderly also have fewer resources to engage in the consumption that sustains their economies. The poorer societies lack the resources to purchase the products of the richer societies, but they need the know-how to manufacture them. Paradoxically it is therefore in the interest of the richer societies to invest in their potential competitors in order to bring them to a condition in which they can purchase the products of the richer societies.

(f) Paradox of organizations: Increasingly it is clear that organizations can no longer function effectively by choosing between conflicting policies. They are forced to work with both extremes simultaneously, whether centralization and decentralization, integration and differentiation, mass and niche-marketing, since both are in each case essential to survival and success. This is leading to the emergence of organizations which organize and group evolving constellations of people and groups rather actually employing them in the traditional sense of the term.

(g) Paradox of age: According to Handy: "The paradox of ageing is that every generation perceives itself as justifiably different from its predecessor, but plans as if its successor generation will be the same as them." The pace of change is such that this assumption is increasingly inappropriate.

(h) Paradox of the individual: There is increasing recognition that the individualism of western organizations (such as those of the USA) has to be tempered by the team and communal spirit of some non-western organizations (as typified by the Japanese). The latter are in their turn recognizing the need for individualism and creativity to counter-balance their tendency to conformity. In this sense people need others to be more truly themselves.

(i) Paradox of justice: Capitalism, as the motor of modern economies, depends on inequality in that those who achieve most are rewarded the most. But any society that, through the unconstrained pursuit of such rewards, is perceived as unjust will be faced with the erosion of the commitment and support from those who perceive that they are being deprived of the opportunity to advance their own condition or even to survive.<

4. Paradoxical strategies in psychotherapy

If world problems are in large part the result of ill-conceived human development, then there is merit in taking account of new approaches to psychotherapy that attempt to circumvent weaknesses in past approaches. Paradoxical therapeutic strategies ostensibly encourage a client's negative or maladaptive behaviour. They have been used with great success in working with difficult individuals, couples and families (Leon F Seltzer, 1986). However, despite their proven track record, most therapists have been reluctant to employ them, not only because of their theoretical-clinical complexities, but also because of their unorthodoxy. Change essentially induced by discouraging it through negative or reverse psychology has been used for centuries. It has been argued that their effectiveness is in part due to their very unorthodoxy and seeming irrationality in relation to the expectations that clients bring to therapy.

This paradoxical emphasis is to be found in the ways major companies are exploring the creative use of conflict within their operations to ensure that they do not become complacent and unable to renew themselves (Richard Pascale, 1990).

5. Paradox in religion

Paradox is of course fundamental to many of the concerns of religion in managing the contradictions of daily life (for example: Cyprian Smith. The Way of Paradox, 1987).

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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