Leaders must master paradoxes as a strength, says Vip Vyas.

As politicians battle to kick-start the global economy whilst simultaneously containing the enduring menace of Covid-19, industry and business leaders are increasingly finding that simply downloading past-based patterns of thinking and planning is ineffective. With storm systems battering organizations from all angles, leaders face myriad complex and uncertain decisions. Rather than struggling to make binary strategic decisions, leaders need to learn to think in dualities, switching from ‘either/or’ to ‘both/and’ thinking.

The either/or trap

Step into any boardroom or executive meeting and you will hear an array of ‘shoulds’ and either/ors being discussed. “Should we target M&A now or delay? Increase or decrease investment in market x or product y? Compete or collaborate? Centralize or decentralize? Maintain or release our current headcount? Focus on core or digital? Operate from home or the workplace?”

Business leaders are caught amid the tensions of competing commitments, conflicting demands, and polar-opposite goals and expectations. Binary thinking – either/or – is nice and neat. It delineates clear-cut options and produces credible decision trees. It helps choreograph convincing prose for analyst meetings. But it has a large drawback: every decision taken at an either/or node terminates the alternative. This can have a significant impact in highly complex systems, where the craving for certainty can generate feedback loops with undesirable consequences.

The uncomfortable stretch

In a world where bad news is often followed by worse news, something new is required. Central to the effectiveness of leadership is the ability to become comfortable with simultaneously holding multiple conflicting perspectives. In other words, leaders need to develop a paradox mindset based on both/and thinking.

While it is not as elegant as either/or, both/and can generate new levels of thinking and value creation. Planting each foot in different perspectives can bring hidden assumptions into the spotlight and unlock unseen advantages.

Changing the question you’re asking can change your perspective. At a recent advisory meeting with a senior team from a leading Hong Kong-based investment bank, the discussion turned to the subject of employees working from home as a result of Covid. One of the executives voiced their question: “How do I really know they are working at home? They are most likely watching Netflix.” It became apparent that there was deep distrust within the bank. As the conversation developed, however, the notion that being in the office equated to high-quality work was challenged. Instead of asking “How do we know if employees are working?”, a new question was asked: “What do we really want?” This shifted the team’s focus onto how they could develop working practices that would support people to produce results in an optimal way, immaterial of location.

The possibility of “having both” is not a panacea for all business problems. In situations where the options are clear and the impact of making a mistake is minimal, an either/or approach is both adequate and appropriate. But both/and is an essential tool in situations where leadership teams are having to deal with impermanence, continual uncertainty and a need for adaptability.

In these conditions, effective planning requires strategists to embrace paradox in their scenarios and strategies, to overcome the intermittent stop-and-go forces impacting their business.

Mindful strategy

Developing the capability to thrive amid the creative tensions arising from paradoxical situations can confer a significant advantage on corporations. An example of this is where leaders have to make decisions using limited or minimal data, in complex environments riven with uncertainty.

Either/or leaves you putting all your eggs in one basket: it is risky. Over time, repeating a corporate either/or message can create a negative cultural snowball effect. Consider a company that repeatedly indoctrinates its employees by reminding them, “We are a low-cost operator: save every cent.” Such a corporation can become cognitively blind, unable to sense, detect, respond to and capture significant opportunities arising from existing and new customer groups.

Build your paradox muscle

Adaptation, speed and agility are the new critical success factors. Being able to scan and notice what is going on – internally and externally – is imperative to the timing of key strategic moves. Developing the organization’s ability to clearly perceive the emerging future, detect ripening opportunities and execute with speed is what will make the difference.

Executives can start building their ‘paradox muscle’ by engaging themselves and their teams in considering some of the key paradoxical questions outlined in Table 1, below. Reframing each of these from an apparent contradiction to a ‘competitive opening’ can activate new neural pathways of discovery.

Paradoxical questions for leaders

As the geopolitical and business worlds twist and turn, oscillating between globalization and regionalization, self-interest and the international greater good, a high tolerance for ambiguity can allow leaders to develop a potent combination of peace of mind and laser-sharp focus. Instead of losing hope and getting frustrated at circumstances, develop a genuine interest in understanding the dynamics of paradoxes. Improve your prowess at unlocking complex puzzles. Master the resolution of mind-twisters. Building paradox muscle can position you, your leadership team and your corporation to do what the competition cannot.