Posted by Steve Romano 29.12.18

Working in the Grey and Leading through Paradox

Last summer I had the fortune to work with a client that manufactures cellular and gene therapies.  The business is complicated involving many different experts, regulatory bodies and oversight, and operational excellence.  In this case, the manufacturing of the therapy requires a sense of urgency to address patient need.  The therapies provide hope to patients who have chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

But what happens when the need for speed and getting a therapy to market comes at the expense of quality and safety ?

Let’s face it.  Conflict happens and sometimes in unexpected ways. To be skilled at it requires an adeptness similar to that of a martial artist – a deep awareness of one’s thoughts and a flexibility to change to emerging situations.

In this example, there are two things that are simultaneously true.  The first is to get the therapy manufactured and in an expedient way.  This benefits both the patient and the organization.  The other truth is to do it with consistent high quality and few mistakes.  To do both, balancing speed and being mindful, can be elusive, even paradoxical, especially with competitors and high expectations.  Yet to discount either is to risk failure.

The idea of two things being true at once is referred to as polarity.  A polarity is understood as a dilemma that is on-going, unsolvable, and would appear to have opposing ideas without a clear or “right” answer.  Think centralization or decentralization or change and stability.  Both are true and necessary.

A problem is something that can have a right — or best — answer; a solution exists. But a polarity is a dilemma that is ongoing, unsolvable and contains seemingly opposing ideas.

We usually think of a polarity in adversarial terms: growth vs. consolidation; short term vs. long term, innovation vs. efficiency, centralization vs. decentralization, change vs. stability.  Change offers new energy, new perspectives, and a willingness to take risk.  Stability offers continuity and loyalty and avoiding unnecessary risk.  Too much stability can result in stagnation or missed opportunities and too much change can result in taking foolish risk and chaos.  Yet both are necessary and can propel a team forward.

Polarities are applied to leadership, too.  For example, is candor at the expense of diplomacy or is logic overshadowing creativity?  Both are complementary and interdependent.  Both are correct in there own context.  This can be hard to accept and sometimes difficult to see because we become attached to our point of view, especially if our power resides in expertise.  Another analogy is activity and rest.  There is a flow to both.  Activity spurs energy and action, rest allows for recovery and renewal.  Too much of either creates imbalance.

The risk is that as leaders we get caught in an either or mindset.  We either need change or we need stability.  In reality, both benefit us.  Yet at different times and in different ways.  Reframing a situation from one right answer to multiple pathways is inclusive leadership – it yields positive results because we appreciate different points of views.  Conflict is managed in expansive rather than limited ways.

In the case of working with my cell therapy client, we identified speed and mindfulness as the polarity to tackle.  To ensure “smart speed” we committed to over communication and identifying what needs to stop.  We also said if taking too much time to makes decisions could be a warning sign.  To increase mindfulness, we wanted to increase consultation across departments and a willingness to challenge assumptions.  If mistakes were repeated or fatigue set in, we needed to pay attention to these signs.

A polarity, by nature, is unsolvable.  It is something to live with rather than to solve – it is unavoidable and indestructible.  So, the next time you have a problem that you need to address, consider this:

  1. Is the issue a problem to solve or a polarity to manage?
  2. Are the alternatives interdependent? If so, what are they?
  3. Are you using both/and thinking rather than either/or?
  4. Are you looking at the situation from both individual and organizational contexts?

Treating a polarity as a problem to solve is a recipe for failure.  If you want to come up short, tie the effort to one of the poles.  If you want to be successful, tie it to both.  Or in the words of Suzuki Roshi, if it’s not paradoxical, it’s not true.