Leading Change – Paradoxes of Change (Week 8)


Change is full of paradoxes and that’s OK, no really!

The Cambridge Dictionary defines paradox as “a situation or statement that seems impossible or is difficult to understand because it contains two opposite facts or characteristics.” In organizational change there are plenty of these and as change leaders we ignore them at our peril. This week we heard about three of these:

  • Paradox of rationality  – this recognizes that organisations are made up of humans who are often guided by intuition, emotion, prejudice and unthinking habit. The fact of humans’ irrationality runs against the current of perception that organisations are rational systems in the pursuit of strategic goals. In fact, organisations have lots of competing goals and attention and energy for these goals shifts over time.

In my last blog on gaps within change, I mentioned Rosabeth Moss-Alice in Wonderland croquet gameKanter and the work she has done on innovation within organisations. Rosabeth likens organisations to the Alice in Wonderland croquet game, with flamingo clubs, guinea pig croquet balls, Queen’s guards in the place of gates and goals all changing shape and direction on their own whilst keeping an eye on the Queen and her performance in the game. To survive Alice needs to navigate this irrational environment, just like the change leader. We need to be aware of and adapt to all of the changes in the game and understand the interplay of rationality and irrationality. We need to do so whilst also recognising the inherent limitations of the myth that organisations are rational.

To do this we need to accept what complexity, ambiguity, disagreement and uncertainty create and appreciate the ensuing tension between Big R rationality and little r rationality. The former is the authoritarian view of rationality that systems, logic and evidence provide the one true solution, whilst the latter uses logic and evidence to challenge the notion that there is one universal truth. This requires us to be self critical, experimental and exploratory to adapt to situations in practice to get things done.

  • Paradox of performance – this is the tension that exists in communicating the myth of the rational organisation and dealing with the duality of performance  required to bring about change.  Success generally comes in that space between thinking and acting with complete knowledge and certainty and total improvisation. Change leaders need to embrace both and appear to be confident in their directives whilst still feeling conflicted and uncertain. Can you embrace this hypocrisy?

This is a real tricky one for me. My own attitude in seeing hypocrisy in others’ actions makes me recoil at the notion of deliberately being hypocritical to achieve an outcome. I don’t want to think about myself being hypocritical and yet….

I see this play out in my organisation a lot as I have been granted the privilege of earning a place in some of our senior leaders’ backrooms. I also see them drawing strength from each other – at least those that they trust –  and swapping out their masks depending on the situation with various degrees of effectiveness.  The best analogy I have on this is being a parent. How often do we as parents, make things appear smooth and easy for our children when below the surface we are frantic and worrying about health, finances and handling job stress? Like it to or not, we all filter information to drive outcomes. But in dealing with this paradox we have to understand that others will judge us not by our intentions, but by our actions, so there is a delicate balance here.

I still think hypocrisy is too strong a term for this. I would prefer to view it as a duality to drive nuance.

  • Paradox of meaning  – can we find meaning in change activities and projects when we know careful thought and action do not guarantee success? Can we learn to live with the gap between what we hope to accomplish and what we can achieve?

stoxoi-stoxos-goal-target-500x330One interesting thought is this concept of synthesis. Reflecting back on my experience of change that I have driven, I think I have been doing this without having a term it. I am a change journeyman, it seems. I really enjoy the strategy, complexity and uncertainty that comes from the process. If I could do nothing all day other than to experiment and solve complex problems, I would would be supremely happy – the magic being in the exploration not in the destination. I am insatiably curious and courageous within bounds in exploring this game of change. The trick is to fire a dart of change without it going ballistic and moving on to the next target if it misses whilst taking out the learning.

Not all qualities are created equal when it comes to change 

So having outlined the main paradoxes of changes, we explored some ways to deal with them. My main take away here is it starts with me and developing certain metaqualities. As Buckley and Monks (2004) point out, these are qualities that drive other skills and abilities and determine how and when knowledge, skills and competencies  are used. They include the following and provide a means to restructure information and shift perspectives on problems rather than just come up with a quick fix:

  • self-knowledge
  • emotional resilience
  • personal drive
  • creativity
  • mental agility
  • critical reflection
  • balanced learning habits and skills
  • cognitive skills
  • self directed pro activity.

Learning by doing and experimenting here is key. Therefore it starts with some confidence and moving knowledge into action which then translates to increasing self confidence in dealing with ambiguity and influencing others. In other words becoming a deviant innovator.

I really like this concept of a deviant innovator. I guess I have always seen myself as one. But, looking back, I realise that I have focused far too heavily on the Big R rationality andcreative-class have not spent enough time probing and sensing. I am just now tentatively dipping my toe in the water of dealing with little r rationality and becoming more experimental in seeing if I can learn to deal with the rationality paradox. This comes in the form of learning to understand emotional agility and looking for emotional cues in myself and others and viewing emotion as data rather than as something scary to be avoided in business. It requires a lot of self knowledge, seeking feedback and reflecting. Its scary and often times feels uneasy, but since making a conscious effort in doing so, I feel I am now seeing the world in multi-colour, whereas before it was in muted hues. Doing this course at this time in my own personal development is surely not a coincidence.

The paradox of reducing complexity into simplicity

In class we learned about the Stacey Matrix as a tool to assist with the paradox of rationality. The matrix was designed by Richard Stacey in 1996 to assist with decision making in complex environments based on the degree of certainty and level of agreement on the issue. It is reproduced here.


Zone 1 in the matrix is ordinary management decision making and operates in simple environments.

Zones 2 and 3  are complex decision making zones operating where there is more uncertainty and less alignment.

Zone 4 is chaos where no conclusions are drawn. The system is not ready to tackle the issue and discussions are circular without resolution.

Zone 5 is the extraordinary zone where more probing and sensing is required and intuition plays a part before a decision can be made.

The tool is quite neat and has been adopted widely. Stacey, however, has distanced himself from the matrix as he felt it invoked the very opposite of what he was trying to show by it. The matrix did the very thing that its existence was trying to discourage, namely  making complexity seem simple. The matrix could be used to reason that we just have to plan and prepare more in more complex environments, when clearly new ways of thinking are required. Another paradox!

An alternative to the above matrix is the Cynefin Framework developed by David Snowden. It outlines the different path to decision making in each of the various environments. Only in the Obvious quadrant is the traditional path of plan, evaluate, do relevant. In the middle is disorder and David Snowden points out that it is where we mostly operate until we have figured out which environment we are in. In that place we have a tendency to interpret the situation according to our preference for action. In practice it certainly feels that way, so it is somewhat gratifying to have this confirmed pictorially.


Cynefin Framework for Problem Solving

Snowden also points out that between each quadrant there is a transition point, but the boundary between Obvious and Chaos is a sharp cliff from which it is very hard to recover. To get to the edge, one has to pass through the zone of complacency. Most decision making should therefore be in the Complex or Chaotic quadrants.

These frameworks reinforce the myriad of factors which can determine the outcome of change, most of which have nothing to do with logic and rationality and the need for different ways of thinking in different phases and environments. Apart from degree of agreement and certainty, communication, skill and capability, culture and pure chance all play a part in change. As change agents we need to be constantly scanning the environment to understand what really is at play.

The bottom line 

I can really relate to the paradox of rationality. I had already figured out that I needed to broaden my organizational inter-relationship tool box beyond just logic and evidence alone. I had been trying some techniques in my conversations with others, listening more closely and being able to observe myself in these interactions whilst they were occurring. It feels like real positive step forward in understanding that others might be butting up against the same paradox and it is inherent in organisational structure. Whereas I was a bit tentative in my approach, after reading about metaqualities and the need for experiential learning, I plan to be more confident in my approach. The achievement of reaching deviant innovator will be my guiding star. Naming something can make all the difference! I also see that it is impossible to remove uncertainty from the organisational environment and understand that I need to make peace with it.