Why paradox creates distinction
Organisations are crazy places, chock full of contradictions. People are called on to behave in paradoxical ways: to conform to established patterns and yet to invent new ways of doing things; to argue their corner and yet to go with the flow; to make things the best they can be and yet not to spend any money; to make omelettes and yet not to break any eggs.
We tend to see these paradoxes as problems, and we try to structure things in ways that eliminate them. We try to make perfect sense of the perfect nonsense that surrounds us. We are doomed to fail, I’m happy to say.
Paradox is a powerful and valuable thing. Just as the opposite charges in an electric motor create motion, organisations that embrace their contradictory nature have an energy that marks them out.
The patterns that blind us
Human beings are programmed to see the world in patterns. This is a fundamental coping mechanism. We simply don’t have the capacity to process the full range of information with which we’re constantly being bombarded, so our brains select and filter, and package it up. When they recognise a familiar pattern, it triggers an automatic response. A brake light slows us down. A familiar face causes an emotional reaction (positive or negative).
When you walk around your own home, you know the turns, doorways and steps. You don’t need to think about them. You move quickly and confidently from place to place. But when you visit somebody else’s house for the first time, your movements are much more hesitant. You look around, take in and process a lot of information to help you know where to step, where to turn and how to move about, and that all takes time. Spend a little time there and you will soon be moving around with almost as much ease as at home.
The problem with these patterns is that we simply do not see beyond them. As long as the familiar elements are in place, they blinker us. When my brother-in-law shaved off his moustache, I didn’t notice – and neither did my sister! The pattern was recogniseably his face, with or without the face fuzz. In our organisations, the same blinkers can be very costly. We don’t see information that doesn’t fit the pattern, so changes take us by surprise. We can’t conceive of new ways of seeing things that don’t conform to the pattern, and that stops us letting our imaginations loose.
The organisation as organism
Organisations are made of people. That’s it. Of course, they also have some forms of stuff, but the stuff doesn’t fundamentally matter. Given the right people, the stuff can always be replaced.
People are all different. We may be clumped together by psychologists or marketeers into a series of types, but these are sweeping generalisations. Every single one of us is unique – an irreplaceable blend of attitude and experience, and that’s what makes us special. And difficult.
So the organisation is made up of a complicated, changeable, warty collection of individuals, and that’s what makes the organisation special. It’s like multiplying odd numbers. No matter how you try, the result will be odd – and that’s good. If you lose the individuality, shoe-horn square pegs into round holes, treat people like even numbers, the results you produce will be smoothed out – bland and dull. Keep it odd. Odd is good!
Scarcity and abundance
There is too much rationing going on. We assume that there isn’t enough of things to go around. But we make wrong assumptions about what is scarce and what isn’t. We ration what doesn’t matter and restrict the capabilities of what matters most.
In the early days of computing, a great deal of time and effort went into sharing out processing time between people. The presumption was that computers were expensive and people were cheap, so it made some sense to have people sitting waiting for the computer to get back to them. The economics have changed utterly, but in many ways our experience hasn’t. Try having a conversation with an automated call centre, and see how much of the time you are waiting on the machine being ready to talk to you.
We act as if we expect all manner of abundant things (ideas, energy, positive feedback, recognition) are scarce, and we behave as if we are on the point of running out of them.
Take the brakes off. What have you got to lose?
Fads and fashions
I belong to a fashion industry, and that’s a pain! My fellow management consultants have made it, and feed it ceaselessly with fad after fad. Managers are made to feel foolish if they’re not up with the latest whizzy idea – heard the conference pitch, bought the book, the DVDs, signed up for the class.
It seems that managers are continually looking for the magic bullet – a new way of thinking and approaching things, the one new seeming science that will transform the way their organisation works. The magic bullet will make everything join up and make sense. It will be easy to sell and to carry through in the organisation, and it will make everything all right. All this nasty, complicated stuff will simply go away.
From the earliest days of consultancy as a profession, consultants have been stoking these fires. Each new idea (or many-times recast old idea) is presented as the wonder drug – the one step, obvious solution. It seems too good to be true. That’s because it is too good to be true. And in the vast majority of cases (employees being apparently savvier than leaders on this subject) it doesn’t get taken seriously in the organisation from the start. In fact, if you look at the statistics:
- Time spent by manager to buy quick-fix management book: 15 minutes
- Time to read book: 1 hour
- Time to issue organisation-wide email announcing new and simple approach (from book) as “our new way of doing business”: 15 minutes
- Time spent by employees to read and dispose of email: 30 seconds x number of employees
- Percentage of employees who snicker at manager’s naiveté: 99%