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How to live with contradictionBY GARETH MORGAN
Organizations undergoing significant change inevitably reach a point where they're speaking out of both sides of their mouth.
Managers' vision for reinventing the business pushes people in one direction - but established rules and systems lag behind.
As a result, people receive contradictory messages. They are told to:
Faced with these contradictions, most people play safe. Hence, the status quo prevails. Exhortations about the need for change fall on deaf ears, and the best-laid plans get immobilized.
However, there are solutions.
First, managers need to recognize that dilemmas and contradictions are natural to any change process, and must be addressed if significant progress is to be made. This can create a problem-solving context where the contradictions can be used as levers of change, instead of being pushed underground.
For example, one organization wrestled with the problem of empowering employees while wishing them to adhere to traditional systems of control. It soon found that much of the money spent on developing a new team atmosphere created cynicism and distrust.
People resented the fact that they were being urged to become "team players" in reinventing the business, while having to adhere to business-as-usual during most of the working day.
But then the company went through an exercise to identify and express these contradictory demands. As a result, managers and employees were able to face the difficulties, and find a solution that recognized the need for a transitional period of operation.
In another context, two organizations were working on a strategic alliance to bring a new product to market. The trouble was they needed to compete and collaborate at the same time.
They had to compete to gain maximum exposure for the product and to generate a rapid cash flow. Yet they could not afford to undermine each other's efforts because long-term success depended on a harmonious relationship.
Their solution was to use each one's particular skills to find ways of "increasing the size of the pie." Relying on their different core strengths, they were able to attack different niches, and offer a broader range of services. Hence, collaboration flourished.
Many individuals and groups experience similar tensions. When the contradictions are not brought to the surface and reframed in a positive way, turf wars usually undermine the whole enterprise.
These examples illustrate an important element of the problem-solving strategy. Contradictions usually exist because both sides of the issue or problem have validity. For example, empowered employees need to be working within some agreed framework or shared understanding, or anarchy rules. Any attempt to reinvent a business cannot let the existing business go down the tubes. Teamwork often requires an element of conflict, tension and constructive competition.
The challenge is to recognize the paradoxes and strains, and find solutions that can integrate both sides of the dilemma. Contradictions can be a manager's best friend, because they draw attention to critical aspects of the situation being managed.
As we continue to operate in an era of rapid change, managers will have to become more skilled in managing paradoxes and competing demands. They will need to master the art of reframing difficult situations to create contexts that allow learning and innovation to flourish. Fortunately, while the challenge seems difficult, the skills are well with our grasp.
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