There are Problems and There are Paradoxes

Information is at our finger tips. We are able to communicate with anyone around the world instantaneously for free. We have specialists in every field who have spent years learning and mastering technical information. Yet on matters most critical for our success and areas where we know we must change (e.g.,the economy, healthcare, the environment), we often struggle to succeed. The same forces at play within society often exist in organizations, families, and even inside ourselves.

I asked Ralph Jacobson, author of the just published book, Getting Unstuck: Using Leadership Paradox to Execute with Confidence, to explain this widespread phenomenon and his understanding why this occurs and what can be done about it. Here is his complete response:

Problems have answers. Humans and organizations are often effective at solving them. But we face issues that are more complex. Many have no easy to implement solutions. They harder we try to fix some of these, the more futile it feels. In most organizations there are stories of, “We first had this same problem 15 years ago, nothing we have done has worked... guess this is just how it has to be.”

That’s an important clue that we are not dealing with a problem that can be solved. Instead, we have a paradox that has to be balanced. The last time most people encountered that word was in a college philosophy class. That’s unfortunate. The reality is that most of the issues that keep us up at night, keep companies from being successful, and societies from making progress is because they are better perceived and understood from the perspective of paradox. And, there are easy-to-use approaches and ways of seeing paradox that can reduce silos, create new pathways for success, help companies succeed, improve leadership, facilitate the implementation of change, and help people sleep better at night.

It is crucial to make the distinction between problems which can be solved and paradoxes that must be balanced. Once the effective solution has been applied to a problem, it ceases. But paradoxes must be balanced, they exist in perpetuity. Once we understand that paradoxes have two polarities that can be both right and wrong at the same time we have a new lens to view the issues that defied resolution. How do you find the critical paradoxes? Look for the tension -- "the heat." Look for issues that defy resolution. Look for things that have more than one good, usually opposing answer. Rather than running away from them or fix them, see them for what they are -- paradoxes.

What do you think of Ralph's ideas? What are some of the paradoxes that are important for your career and the success of your organization?