Make strategy the rule, not the exception
December 7, 2023
Marianne Lewis: Leaders experience tensions most under conditions of change and scarcity, and as stakeholder pressures vary. Today’s business conditions – really, our life conditions – are the ‘perfect storm’ for tensions. Caught in so many tug-of-wars, it’s not surprising that we hear ‘both/and thinking’ becoming a bit of a mantra. All kinds of people talk about the value of AND – world leaders, CEOs, authors, scientists and poets. Companies like Barclays and Starbucks use both/and language in their marketing. Consulting firms like Deloitte, PwC, EY and others stress the importance of managing paradox. This is encouraging. Both/And thinking enables more creative and lasting solutions. Yet most leaders lack the tools to put both/and thinking into practice. This is what Wendy Smith and I have been studying for over 20+ years – how leaders navigate paradoxes. Now is time to offer a guide for living and thriving in tensions.
Extract from Chapter 2 – Getting Caught in Vicious Cycles: Rabbit Holes, Wrecking Balls and Trench Warfare
Stressing only one side of a paradox oversimplifies and narrows our options. The tricky thing is that picking one side usually offers us short-term success—comfort, respect, rewards, efficiency, joy. Success motivates us to stick with that option, until we get stuck in a rut. The greater the success of those either/or choices, the deeper the ruts. the LEGO Group’s leaders learned this all too well as their commitment to the organization’s greatest strengths nearly led to their downfall…Ultimately these traps lead us into vicious cycles. In our research, we identifying three patterns of vicious cycles: rabbit holes (intensification), wrecking balls (overcorrection), and trench warfare (polarization).
Like Alice in Wonderland, we can enter a rabbit hole only to find ourselves falling deep and fast without even realizing it. What drives us farther down the hole, keeping us stuck in a narrow pattern of choices long after we realize the need to grow and change? Alternatively, why might friends, family members, leaders, businesses, and societies continue in ruts long after strengths have turned into liabilities, making bad situations even worse? A vicious cycle of intensification develops because the more we respond to tensions in a certain way, particularly if the action benefits us initially, the more we overuse that response. We get better at, more comfortable with, and more automatic in that response. The response becomes a habit. Three traps fuel the vicious cycles of intensification. The ways we think (cognition), feel (emotion,) and act (behavior) all advance our descent down a rabbit hole.
Marianne Lewis: Given today’s attention to diversity and inclusion globally, this a key time to move this from a trend to a powerful and valued norm. If we are to collectively address our biggest issues, we need widely varying views on the topics, and the ability to listen and learn across our divides. This means really tapping into the power of diversity and inclusion. It’s not just about having diverse individuals involved; it’s about listening, engaging and challenging from all directions. Yet this also takes navigating a host of vital paradoxes – honoring differences and finding similarities, ensuring equity and rewarding performance, recognizing people’s varied contexts and needs and nurturing a collaborative, engaging culture.
For example, companies can achieve a more inclusive culture by helping employees connect with those similar to themselves. Through women, racial, #LGBTQ+ and other resource groups, individuals feel more supported and confident, and better able to engage with the broader organization. Leaders are better able to attract and develop talented underrepresented minorities when they give direct, sometimes difficult feedback rather than avoid for fear of offending. Embracing diversity and inclusion tensions takes trust, paired with shared values for inclusion and excellence.
If you had to give one piece of advice to a reader of this article, what would it be?
Marianne Lewis: The first step to making better (more creative, lasting and impactful) decisions is to change the question. We tend to frame decisions as tradeoffs, asking either/or questions. Leaders are taught to be clear and decisive. As business school professors, we see this all the time. For example, MBA professors start classes presenting a case study, articulating a challenge and asking students to analyze, debate then decide between alternative outcomes. The problem is that an either/or question narrows the outcome options. Choosing and becoming committed to one outcome can lead us down a vicious cycle. This kind of thinking is limited at best and detrimental at worst. We get stuck in limited, even detrimental thinking. We see what we expect to see. Fuel self-fulfilling prophecies. Keep leaning to our preferred side of an either/or. Yet life is messy – our world is complicated, uncertain and dynamic. There is so very much to learn, and it take insights from many different angles to work through the mess.
The questions we ask speak volumes about the way we think. The first step to adopting both/and thinking is to change the question. We typically ask either/or questions when we confront a dilemma or challenge. Should I do this or that? A or B? But underlying our dilemmas are paradoxes. These interdependent opposites persist over time. Both/and thinking involves considering: How can I do that this AND that at the same time? Changing the question invites us into a different way of thinking and results in more creative outcomes.
Marianne Lewis: The two topics I’m most focused on next are intertwined – leadership development and combatting polarization. I want to dive deeper into how to develop better leaders. Wendy and I know from our and others’ research that effective leaders are paradoxical. They find comfort in the discomfort of tensions. They see competing demands as energizing, and value the creative friction they provide. This includes valuing their own contradictions – being confident and humble, spontaneous and rigorous, compassionate and driven. And they seek out and embrace paradoxes in their organizations, determined to be financially and socially responsible, to build global reach and honor local demands, to focus sharply on needs of today and dream boldly for the future. As a business school dean, I care deeply about the HOW – how do we nurture these understandings and capabilities in tomorrow’s leaders
I also want to study and help efforts to combat polarization. This is a vicious cycle that we’ve studied and discuss in Both/And Thinking. Groups reinforce their own side while diminishing and ultimately dehumanizing the other. Polarization defines our political landscapes globally, and too often challenges our personal relationships. Wendy and I depict polarization as trench warfare – each side digs a trench, reinforces their perspective and shoots at the opposition. Instead of creative problem solving, both sides end up with lots of casualties. So how do we help ourselves and our work get out of the trenches? I think this starts with humanizing the opposition. They are real people, and they, too, probably want a better world. Considering their views and experiences takes humility – we don’t know what we don’t know. I look forward to working with others to develop tools and learning practices in this realm. Our collective future is at stake.
Thank you Marianne Lewis
Many thanks, Bertrand