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Managing Complexity – How Organizations Navigate Strategic paradoxes

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Managing Complexity – How organizations navigate strategic paradoxes

Dynamic work environments are complex and the changing conditions of ambiguity, uncertainty, conflicting goals, contradictory messages, and competing perspectives create barriers to effective performance. We are asked to take a long-term view and to make short-term decisions that increase profits. We are asked to learn new things and to perform at highest levels. We need to innovate and to operate in predictable ways. We oscillate between centralized and decentralized operational structures. We organize work closely for control and want people to show initiative and self-organize. We encourage collective identity and reward individual achievements. Such conditions give rise to paradoxes, contradictory yet interrelated ways of thinking and acting. (Smith and Lewis, 2011). Paradox can be a double-edged sword – capable of providing meaning and energy, and also of fostering paralysis and deep frustration when people try to avoid them or resolve them prematurely. Research suggests that adopting paradoxical practices (actions and mindsets that favor “yes and” rather than “either/or” approaches) are associated with increased performance and creativity – both vital qualities to effectively operating in rapidly changing environments. Paradoxical practices are also critical in enabling innovation when a task is complex or when there are limited resources. Paradoxical thinking and action expand the ways we come to understand cross-cultural and global issues by inviting us to entertain perspectives that don’t necessarily make sense to us

During the year, we will explore how practices of paradoxical thinking and action enhance the ability to recognize interrelated aspects of competing elements, and how to address the relationships between those elements in a way that brings about a balanced way forward. We will delve into how moving away from thinking only of linear cause and effect, invites us to see the more complex causal mechanisms underlying messy problems can expand our understanding, promote comprehensive decision-making, and lead to generating more effective solutions. The theme will tackle questions such as: What are key paradoxes in today’s organizational life? How do leaders embody paradoxical thinking and action? How do organizations develop these practices in their employees? How might organizations be designed more purposefully to attend simultaneously to competing demands? We will approach our inquiry into paradox through three distinct topics and look at the fields of cultural psychology, political science, collaboration, and decision making to inform our exploration.

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Harvard Graduate School of Education