Big Picture

The Power of Paradox

Frustrated by the pressure of ensuring that your people are delivering on today’s core process while at the same time needing to develop tomorrow’s best practices?  Are you paying the price of focusing on the customer while employee grievances stack up in your Inbox?  Maybe you feel all your time is spent fire-fighting urgent problems while your long-term planning languishes at the bottom of your to do list, never getting the full attention needed to stay competitive in the future.

These are all examples of paradoxes – seductive situations where you believe you have to choose between two right answers. But, you don’t have to choose. Once you are able to see the world through a “both / and” lens and challenge your existing assumptions about what is possible, you will see that there is a different, better, way to approach business.

Welcome to the world of paradox, where two solutions seemingly at odds can both be achieved at the same time. Don’t settle for a forced either/or choice when you can gain the best of what each point of view has to offer and minimize the costs of over-focusing on either: develop “dual action plans” to address each goal and work on them simultaneously.  

The “Power of Paradox” can be harnessed as a broad management tool, teaching us how we can achiev emore complete rather than partial solutions in seemingly unsolvable business issues. A core differentiator for the most effective leaders is their ability to see the multiple sides of situations and leverage seeming conflicts for business success. Similarly, managers who limit value through nearsighted side-picking in a constant adversarial contest may feel like they are winners when in reality everybody loses.

Paradoxes are ubiquitous; if you look, you find them everywhere. Some examples of business paradoxes include:

  1. Innovation.
    Situation. Keith has been promoted to lead an innovation-focused division comprised of a number of smaller recent acquisitions. While there has been some patience, integration pressure is mounting to realize the synergies promised and margin contributions. At the same time, individual business heads are expecting greater investments and the opportunity to continue their own approaches independent of corporate direction.
    Analysis. Keith faced a familiar tension: immediate financial tension versus long-run innovative mandates. The result was adversarial conflict. By recognizing that immediate versus long-term was the source of the adversarial conflict, Keith was able to use that observation to help him align the acquisition and corporate teams to create solutions that were superior to what either side had previously proposed while eliminating unproductive adversarial conflict.
  2. Manager of a Rapidly Growing Division.
    Situation. James has been with the company for 20 years now and has advanced through the sales ranks. He now runs THE division that is the growth engine of his midsized manufacturing company. The problem he has faced, however, is, as the  growth engine, he is pushed hard to not only keep that growth going, but to accelerate it. Yet, the harder he pushes his people, the more he loses them to the competition and the harder it becomes to hire new talent.
    Analysis. James realized that he had to engage his team in another approach that could sustain the growth and reduce the strain. Using a paradox review to discover hidden barriers and drivers of performance, he was able to find a path forward that would both increase value and reduce effort. For James, merely recognizing the source of the conflict enabled him to more efficiently re-allocate his people to better match job requirements to individual skill sets.
  3. ESG, Sustainability.
    Situation. As Chief Sustainability Officer for a major division of a Fortune 500 company, Sarah faced the seemingly never-ending task of trading the bottom line for a more sustainable approach to business. For her clients, she often feels that sustainability means swapping carbon credits around rather than having a material impact on the environment.
    Analysis. Sarah recognized that there doesn’t have to be a trade-off, that is it is possible to be green AND increase profits. Recognizing value chain efficiencies, strategic control and leveraging partnerships, she was able to increase the bottom line while simultaneously decreasing her division’s carbon footprint. For Sarah, recognizing the existence of this paradox encouraged her to do a deep dive into the industry’s value chain to find areas of “low hanging fruit” where taking steps out of the system was a “win-win” for everyone.

As you think about tough choices in your business, first identify whether you are facing a paradoxical situation. Clarify what paradoxical choices you face. Then, be honest about the sources of those conflicts. From here, discover ways to build action plans to accomplish both objectives — at the same time.  Don’t settle for an unsatisfying “either/or” choice when you can achieve all the important results that are needed.

For your business, what paradoxes do you face and how might addressing them help you?

Steps for Employing the Power of Paradox

  1. Awareness.
    As the old saying goes, “recognizing that you have a problem is half the solution.” Same with paradoxes – recognizing that you have a paradoxical choice is an essential step of progress. Encourage your team to see conflicts as opportunities for leverage and growth.
  2. Discovery.
    Find the source of the conflict. Is it a simple linear problem or a more complex intertwined condition? Don’t settle for trade-offs straight away. Identify the scope, scale, and stakeholders who own, contribute to, and depend upon performance outcomes related to the paradox.
  3. Solution Generation.
    Paradoxes are embedded in situations. Multiple perspectives provide a better description of the context. Engage the teams who own the conflict in shared problem solving and concurrent solution commitment. Employ paradox problem solving methodologies and/or heuristics (e.g., Polarity Mapping, Pre-Mortem, Empathy Maps, Competency Mapping and Strategic Control).
  4. Management and Monitoring.
    Periodically monitor those paradoxes that provide competitive advantage and then adjust the balances to fit your situation and intention. Perhaps even more importantly, actively seek obvious and hidden conflicts that impede progress and success for paradox review.

Harnessing the “Power of Paradox” requires rigor, discipline, and consistent awareness to not settle. Recognizing a paradoxical situation, using various methodologies to not only resolve conflict, but harness its power, is central to using it to your advantage. 

Lessons for Managers

  • If you have intuitively learned to see paradoxes in your practice as a leader, do not assume that this is common across your team. It is seldom taught in business schools or development courses.
  • Reduce the fear of conflict. Encourage your team to see conflicts as opportunities to leverage for growth if you capitalize on those situations. 
  • Understand the source of the conflict. Metrics rarely tell a complete story. Include contextual analysis tools related to paradox to understand what “just right” will be for your situation. 
  • Be accurate and efficient in the problem-solving process. Multiply perspectives by engaging the teams who own the conflict in shared problem solving and giving them responsibility for solution implementation and success.
  • Embed monitoring of strategic paradoxes (those that create competitive advantage) in your ongoing business review efforts.

Paradoxes in business are all around us. Mere awareness of paradoxes can reduce unproductive conflict in organizations and purposefully leveraging them can accelerate and redefine success. This effort is not applying another abstract structure or model on your business; It is a clearer look at reality that can energize teams who see leaders solving real challenges. The core work of managers is to make choices: to judge and select from options and alternatives. Unfortunately, all too often managers immediately settle for the trade-off right in front of them. Don’t.


Written by Dr. William Putsis, Jeff Flesher, and Robert Jacobs. William Putsis, Jeff Flesher and Robert (“Jake”) Jacobs are university professors at top business schools, acclaimed authors, and seasoned consultants for numerous Fortune 500 firms. Together, they offer a suite of in-person sessions, working with companies to help them harness The Power of Paradox.

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Dr. William Putsis
Dr. William Putsis is a Professor of Marketing, Economics and Business Strategy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and a Faculty Fellow for Executive Programs at Yale University. He is also president and CEO of Chestnut Hill Associates, a strategy consulting firm offering a suite of online executive development courses. His new book is The Carrot and the Stick: Leveraging Strategic Control for Growth (Rotman-UTP Publishing, Feb. 3, 2020).


Dr. William Putsis is an external advisory board member for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.