A Journey Through Paradox
by Mike Cox

If you believe applying conventional logic and methodical technique is the recipe for obtaining management results, do not read any farther. It may be injurious to your mental well-being, and create considerable pain on the right side of your brain. For those who have tried everything, succeeded periodically and continue to search for the ultimate management wisdom, here is a consoling observation: management is a grand paradox. Its objective is control and predictability yet in truth, what we are trying to manage is essentially irrational and illogical. Acknowledging this basic contradiction is a challenge, but it can make you a better manager.

Obviously there are skills required to manage effectively. The ability to plan and organize, for example, is very important. Nonetheless when it comes to human affairs and relationships, the heart of leadership or management, they defy direction. People and the congregation of people as organizations follow the inconsistent laws of human nature. Simple prescriptions are sought to understand, then manipulate, something that is infinitely complex.

For example, the implementation of technology has been growing rapidly. However, events beyond the realm of any manager have followed close behind. A situation now exists in which there is a severe shortage of technology professionals. Carefully cultivated corporate loyalties yield to the lure of higher salaries. An inordinate amount of time is spent recruiting these specialists and compensation plans are distorted out of proportion to keep them. In hindsight, the situation might have been foreseen, but ultimately this is a predicament that can only be coped with, not controlled.

Partnerships have also become important as more companies outsource their requirements to enable them to focus on their core product or service. However, the line between the customer and service provider is less distinct and alliances between them are easily ruptured because of their dependence on a web of person-to-person interactions, fragile even at the best of times. Instead of being based on product or price, factors that are visible and measurable, long term buying decisions are increasingly based on relationships. To confound management logic even further, closer relationships with customers usually raises their expectations as they come to understand what further changes might benefit them in the overall process. Better service results in a higher level of dissatisfaction.

We consume management fads and follow fashionable trends to resolve these incongruities. Unfortunately no approach is lastingly successful. Companies touted in the past for their management methods have ultimately demonstrated the same vulnerability as everyone else. In some cases early success preceded growth that subsequently suffocated the expression of creativity and innovation that made the early success possible. In others the foibles and errors in judgment of well intentioned leaders in a changing marketplace were to blame. There are no quick fixes and certainly no guarantees.

Even those individuals acknowledged as good leaders are unable to define why they are good. They do not translate their understanding into technique. Other so called “experts” in human affairs are only successful occasionally. Psychologists and psychotherapists know human relationships but do not do any better in their relationships. Child development specialists raise brats too. Managers with huge differences in style can be equally successful. Dealing with the paradox of management may one of instincts, but instincts moulded by experience, understanding and accumulated knowledge. By recognizing the intrinsic uncertainty of being a manager they can transcend technique, draw upon all of their knowledge and respond to situations openly and spontaneously. They can be themselves. There is no all-encompassing formula. Everything works and at the same time nothing works.

Accepting this inherent irrationality provides the freedom that can unleash creativity and innovation. When any success is understood as temporary and the absurd is expected, the need to see things differently becomes business as usual, not just a reaction to external change. Barriers to new ideas are removed. Realizing there is no perfect response to any situation, new ideas are automatically encouraged. More important, they will have a greater likelihood of being implemented. In some firms traditional organizational hierarchies are being transformed into customer-aligned, cross-functional, “virtual” teams. In this setting members bring different perspectives to problems and have greater latitude to express their creativity. This structure, or lack of it, is an innovative adaptation to an unstable environment.

It is so easy to feel numbed by the imprecision of management but its absurdity should cause us to back off and examine our assumptions. By accepting the paradoxical nature of human affairs we can then embrace its ambiguity. By realizing that these issues can never be mastered, only appreciated and coped with in different and creative ways, we may become wiser. Management becomes a bumpy journey, not a final destination. Making that trip is an adventure.

Mike Cox
ProAct Information Services

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 1998 by Mike Cox. All rights reserved.

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