23 - How to Navigate

How To Navigate Complexity By Embracing Paradox

Some kind but rather straight-talking friends of mine have suggested that my indulgence in abstract thinking renders me so “heavenly minded as to be no earthly good”. What they mean is that my abstractions may be entirely sound philosophically but they leave my readers at a loss as to what they might actually do in response. Occasionally, I feel moved to correct the imbalance, if only occasionally! In my last post, through a story I suggested some of what a person who is helping to activate a purposeful enterprise “thinks like”. So, with the “practical” in mind, I want to introduce you to, “integrative thinking,” It’s not a new concept, but it’s an example of a way of thinking that will be common at purposeful enterprises. Now, let me be clear – I want to share this as an example of how you might think, not to tell you what to think!

In an article he wrote in the Harvard Business Review entitled “How Successful Leaders Think,” Roger Martin, the former dean of the Rotman School of Management, outlined a single way of thinking that he discovered was shared by a wide variety of successful leaders he had interviewed over a six year period. He called it, “integrative thinking,” which is essentially the ability of a person to hold two seemingly opposed ideas in tension, and then, rather than selecting one or the other, to come up with a new alternative. This way of thinking will be more important in business, as complexity grows and a penchant for handling ambiguity becomes a core skill for all of us.

In the previous story, you met Andy, who, after a long courtship, had joined a new company to help grow a new business he was excited about. But soon after he arrived, he started to get the sinking feeling that his thinking about the business didn’t match his peers. And if a simple difference of opinion was not enough to make him feel unsettled, he thought that the leadership team was not doing its part to really live up to the very brand promise that had helped to bring him in. It all came to a head during his first involvement at the team’s yearly strategy session. The thinking at the strategy session seemed weak and off-purpose – so much so that Andy became convinced that he needed to tell his boss, the CEO, what he thought. It all came to a head when, heading to lunch, she asked him how he thought the morning session had gone…

If we probe under the surface of Andy’s story, there are things we can learn. Andy recognized that a management team he respected was aligned on a way of thinking, and an expression of strategy, with which he disagreed. As the months went on, he became more and more certain that his perception was valid, which of course confronted him with a choice. When it was clear that a fundamental difference of thinking existed, he could have either chosen to:

  1. leave the herd(select his own point of view) deciding, “I quit because I disagree with these people and their interpretation of this vision, so I need to go elsewhere.” Or
  2. join the herd(select the group point of view), deciding, “I like these people, and if they all seem to think this way, then they must be right, so I had better drop my point of view and join them.”

Or, he could have pursued a third, more complex option:

  1. live in the tension, recognizing that, “perhaps I’m in this role precisely because I don’t think like everybody else and reinforce group norms, and maybe I can be a change agent to make this place better?”

For many of us, the underlying feeling that unites all three options – the feeling that we do not fit in – offers two very different kinds of invitation. We can, on the one hand, conclude that we really don’t belong, that the simple priorities of our colleagues leave us at odds with the culture, so it might just be best for us to make our positive impact elsewhere. On the other hand, the feeling of not belonging could be in invitation and opportunity for us to courageously bring something new into the mix where we are.

Despite the promises of a whole raft of management formulas, real change in organizations is hard, and will only begin through personal discomfort and sacrifice.

Without those essential ingredients, the kind of change that leads to the expression of a true purpose just won’t ever emerge. To transcend mere delivery of shareholder value by instead living out a more meaningful and beneficial purpose will always be harder than to simply generate profit growth and therefore look only for an economic justification for every decision. Purposeful enterprises will be forged by people who have enough strength of character to handle the tension created by multiple objectives (attending to shareholder investment while also limiting environmental cost, for example) and competing ideas. The best and most compelling leaders, when faced with that tension, will not resort to “standing above” their colleagues, making shrill demands and decrees, but will rather come alongside them with humility and courage, steering the group toward a better way, together.

Confronted with two difficult extremes, the integrative thinker chooses to spend her emotional and mental energy struggling for a better, more creative and beneficial option rather than on wrestling with the consequences of obvious alternative A or B. Often, integrative thinkers can produce positive movement or change for the better because they have trained themselves to look for options and possibilities, rather than to be constrained by the obvious and expected “either/or” kind of outcomes.

Andy had resolved to head toward that complex “third way”. In the story, he chose neither to quit nor to capitulate, and instead chose to examine his own thinking and that of his peers to be doubly sure of what he was about to embark on. When doubt continued to fade about what he really believed and was seeing, he turned his attention to summoning the courage and finding the words to share his perspective with the team. The path he found involved giving honest feedback – radical candor, one might call it. Bringing his concerns to light and pushing the group to get better had costs – risk and discomfort at the very least, but he did it anyway, because he was an integrative thinker. The biggest reward, as he thought about it, was the possibility to entirely recalibrate the way the team chose to live out the company’s values, which would set both the team and the company in an entirely new direction. A worthy cause, he decided.

Over the years, having confronted situations like this before and having learned to find creative ways through, Andy had taught himself to: beware of absolutes, to examine (and re-examine, before acting on them) emotional first responses, to take the time and put in the effort to engage in relationship so he could better step into someone else’s shoes, and when he faced complexity, to always try to remember that it concealed new possibilities. But what Andy knew he’d continue to need in order to practice integrative thinking, now and in the future, were the virtues of humility (to stick with the group, even though he disagreed) and courage (to speak up).

At some point, we will each find ourselves in a place that promises more discomfort than the assurance that we fit. The key sources of telos, as I have defined it previously, is a strong sense of self and a deep awareness of (and relevance to) a social tension – a need of others. That capacity to hold fast to both/and rather than resort to either/or will stand us all in good stead in the midst of companies that must contribute in powerful and positive ways to society and survive economically at the same time. Hang in there in this moment of uncomfortable tension. Perhaps, like Andy, that is precisely why you are there in the first place!

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