Managing unsolvable problems: Understanding paradox (Part 1)

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

A paradox is a special kind of problem that has no solution. Paradoxes can only be managed, they can’t be solved.* Family businesses — like all systems — wrestle with tough challenges that, upon closer examination, prove to be “complementary opposites” or paradoxes. Some examples:

  • Family AND Business
  • Harvest AND Invest
  • Tradition AND Change

The wisest response to these paradoxes is to find ways to value and pursue BOTH values, even though it may appear  —  and feel  —  impossible.

Paradoxes are made up of two desirable values that appear to be in conflict but, in fact, are complementary. Choosing one to the exclusion of the other will yield predictable difficulties, but finding ways to pursue BOTH will yield superior outcomes, stronger relationships and more effective communication.

What’s the difference between a paradox and a problem? A problem can be solved, decided, put to bed. For example: Should I hire my daughter, yes or no? Should I invest this year’s profits into the business rather than paying a dividend, yes or no? Should we introduce a new product this year, yes or no? These problems may be difficult, but once decided and solved, we move on.

In contrast, a paradox can’t be solved, it can’t be put to bed. With the paradox of “Family and Business,” which would you choose? Which side of “Harvest and Invest” is superior? Which value would you select for “Tradition and Change?”

Hopefully, your choice in all of these examples is: “Yes, both!” The key to paradox management is recognizing that choosing one, to the exclusion of the other, will bring predictable problems. As you recognize the paradox, you know the necessity is to support both.

What paradoxes do you encounter in your family firm? How do you find the both/and solution?

Recognizing the presence of a paradox is the first step. Managing the paradox with skill is the next step and we’ll examine that more closely in the next post.

“We need a new way of thinking about our problems and our futures. My suggestion is the management of paradox, in that paradox can only be ‘managed’ in the sense of coping with…Paradox I now see to be inevitable, endemic and perpetual. The more turbulent the times, the more complex the world, the more paradoxes there are. We can, and should, reduce the starkness of some of the contradictions, minimize the inconsistencies, understand the puzzles in the paradoxes, but we cannot make them disappear, or solve them completely, or escape from them. 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, work and in the community and among nations.”

Charles Handy, The Age of Paradox, 1994


My deep thanks to Dr. Barry Johnson for his pioneering work and inspiration in this field. Please see www.polaritypartnerships.com for more on polarities and paradox. 

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