Against common sense


Overwhelmingly, orthodox management journals and books assume that managers are in control, can predict and design organisational futures and organisational culture, can purposefully bring about transformation and innovation. Even when the majority literature identifies contradiction in the form of paradox, as a phenomenon, it argues that managers can control this too, often suggesting that contradictions can be ‘unleashed’ for the creative good of the organisation, or can be brought into dynamic balance. Such is the instrumentality of orthodox management thinking.

So one way to engage with this is to argue against orthodox management by taking a contrary view. I’m going to do so by thinking about the usefulness of paradox, from the Greek para doxa, or arguing against what people ordinarily hold to be true; I’m arguing against common sense by saying that paradox cannot be unleashed, turned to the good or brought into a helpful equilibrium of our liking.

I assume instead that we live in a radically unpredictable world, which is not the same as saying it is random. We experience order and disorder, routine and accident, we are in control and not in control in both the formal and shadow sides of organisational life. There is no privileged place to stand which resolves these paradoxes or brings them into balance. We can experience one thing and its opposite, and all we can do is notice, reflect and potentially become more comfortable with paradoxes of everyday organisational life.

How does the majority literature want to deal with paradox? Uusually it proceeds by splitting the opposite poles of the paradox apart and puts managers in charge of the split, privileging one pole over the other. So, for example, and to caricature, we are asked to believe that innovation is good and stability bad, we are invited to aspire to an inspirational future in contrast with an inadequate present, action is privileged over thinking. This is thought possible because the manager is considered to be separate from whomever, or whatever they are managing. It is possible to do this because orthodox literature abstracts away from the living complexity of every day organisational life to produce models and tools which are simplifications of what we experience on the day to day. Of course these simplifications can be very helpful, but only if we continue to remember that they are derived from what William James referred to as life’s ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’. When we take up these simplifications and try to apply them in particular contexts at particular time, they may bring about the opposite of what we intend unless we continue to pay attention to what arises as a result of our activities. I argue that it is important to notice both poles of our experience, the disorder that arises from our attempts to order, the unpredictability that remains despite the power of our predictions, the current examples of what are general trends.

Working with paradox requires a different way of thinking than resting solely on propositional logic (‘if we do this, then that will happen’), rationality, splitting and abstraction alone. It is not enough to assume that we can think in the abstract and then apply our thinking ‘in practice’. Noticing paradox allows us to acknowledge a richness of thinking which has fascinated us since the ancient Greeks: our ability to conceive of one thing and then its opposite, both at the same time. It allows for a more complex understanding in the production of a generative tension that allows for more data to be brought to our attention, even if in sometimes confusing and exasperating ways.

Paradox: what it is and what it isn’t

Simply put, paradox arises when two mutually exclusive self-referencing ideas, define each other but negate each other both at the same time. I have already been using a number of examples above when I talked about the predictable unpredictability of organisational life, or contrasted a general abstraction which is taken up in particular contexts.

Paradox is not the same as a dilemma, a double bind, or a chiasm. The most talked about dilemma in management literature is often presented as a paradox, the so-called explore/exploit paradox: whether firms should go on exploring for new products, or whether they should exploit the innovations they have already made. And although I am reluctant to be pedantic, this is not a paradox according to the definition I have given above, but a resource dilemma.

Paradox and the natural sciences

Whilst it figures prominently in the history of philosophy and in literature, paradox is much less likely to occur overtly in accounts of natural science thinking, because, as Aristotle first articulated it: ‘the most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.’[i] Natural science methods are predicated on the idea of eliminating contradiction and deploy a range of methods including logic, to do away with it. This may account for the absence of reflection on paradox in the orthodox management literature if it aspires to being much more like the natural sciences, such as the evidence-based management movement.

However, as a number of sociologists of science have pointed out, elegant and parsimonious accounts of findings in natural science research inevitably leave out the complex circumstances in which discovery took place and how they were produced. It might be a problem if the evidence-based management movement based their understanding of what management needs on an idealized account of science. For example Robert Merton, the father of the sociology of science highlighted exactly this point when he observed that scientific discovery rested on a mixture of wisdom and chance:

The serendipity pattern refers to the fairly common experience of observing an unanticipated, anomalous and strategic datum which becomes the occasion for developing a new theory or for extending an existing theory… The datum is, first of all, unanticipated. A research directed toward the test of one hypothesis yields a fortuitous by-product, an unexpected observation which bears upon theories not in question when the research was begun. Secondly, the observation is anomalous, surprising, either because it seems inconsistent with prevailing theory or with other established facts. In either case, the seeming inconsistency provokes curiosity… And thirdly, in noting that the unexpected fact must be strategic, i.e., that it must permit of implications which bear upon generalized theory, we are, of course, referring rather to what the observer brings to the datum than to the datum itself. For it obviously requires a theoretically sensitized observer to detect the universal in the particular.[ii]

What I notice in Merton’s formulation is that he is suggesting in the last line the paradox of discovery: that of finding the universal in the particular. In other words, the skills managers need to cultivate are exactly this ability to hold contradictory modalities together at the same time to see what arises from the tension. It is an orientation, a sensitivity, a habit of mind, a practice which demonstrates a form of wisdom.

This formulation, finding the particular in the general, is very close to what Aristotle understood by his term phronesis, or practical wisdom, despite his abhorrence of contradiction. For Aristotle we demonstrate practical wisdom, which is not a science in his terms, by being able to bring together the particular relevance of more general concepts to bear in a certain place at a particular time on a particular problem. Having one’s judgement guided by paradox is a phronetic skill.

We find this habit of mind across disciplines and in every corner of social life. As another example of the practice of seemingly logical practice itself, here is what a contemporary mathematician David Byers said about mathematics as a practice:

Ambiguity and paradox are aspects of mathematical thought that differentiate the ‘trivial’ from the ‘deep’. The ‘trivial’ arises from the elimination of the ambiguous. The ‘deep’ involves a complex multi-dimensionality such as those evoked by the successful resolution of situations of ambiguity and paradox. Even the word ‘resolution’ is misleading in this context because it usually implies the reduction of the ambiguous to the logical and the linear. What really happens is that the ambiguity gives birth to a larger context, a unified framework that contains the various potentialities that were inherent in the original situation.[iii]

Byers’ formulation of the ‘unified framework’ which contains the potentialities of the original contradiction is for me very close to Hegel’s understanding of Aufhebung, the process of paradoxical dialectic which unifies contradictions in a higher unity, which again is beset by another contradiction.

Additionally, and in demonstration of my own particular interest, there is a branch of the natural sciences, the sciences of complexity, which also demonstrates paradox. One of the first people to notice the implications of the complexity sciences for thinking about the paradoxes of social life is my late colleague Ralph Stacey[iv] and I draw heavily on his work here. Fractal geometry, for example, produces patterns of regular irregularity as is demonstrated here

in a Mandelbrot set, named after the mathematician who popularized them. The pattern is infinitely complex, yet is created by a relatively simple iterating formula, which combines real and imaginary numbers, and where the output of one iteration is fed in as the input of the next. The pattern is both regular and irregular at every degree of scale.

We can see this paradoxical pattern of regular irregularity repeated throughout nature from small snowflakes through to mountain ranges:

Another branch of the complexity sciences, complex adaptive systems, which are agent-based computer models demonstrating evolutionary behaviour, also enact a paradox. The models are intended to simulate how order and disorder arise within a population of, say, ants or termites, or the synapses in a human brain; in each of these examples there is no obvious control centre, and the coherence of the whole population arises from the micro-activity of each of the individual agents interacting locally with other, similar agents. One paradox of the computer-based model is that the local interaction of the agents produces the population-wide pattern, but at the same time the population-wide pattern imposes constraints on exactly how the agents can interact.

As Stacey has argued very clearly, models may be helpful, whatever their source domain, but it is also necessary to think them through in social terms. It is important not to fall into the trap of claiming, for example, that organisations are fractals, or complex adaptive systems, but the models may tell us something about the nature of social life, which I argued above, is both regular and irregular, predictable and unpredictable, surprising and routine at the same time. The complexity models and organisational life share this in common.

The consequences for managers

If models, visions and strategies are simplifications from the complex background of organizational life, how might we pay attention together as to how these abstractions play out in practice? How are we formed by our own expectations of what might happen and those of other people?

Yiannis Gabriel points out[v] that the word serendipity, picked up and used by Merton in his description of the practice of scientists, was coined by the art historian Horace Walpole and derived from his knowledge of the ancient Persian tale of the three princes of Serendip. The princes of Serendip kept having happy accidents, discoveries of things they were not looking for. But they were able to see the universal relevance of particular things: in other words they were able to exercise practical judgement, phronesis, through having sufficient wisdom and judgement to see the importance of something once it came to light. How might we as managers better cultivate practical judgement, the combination of wisdom and experience?

Perhaps managers need to remain tolerant of the often contradictory and paradoxical pressures they find themselves caught up in, without the need to rush to premature closure, or to assume that they can be wished, or managed away. If paradox is a habit of thought, arising because we have developed physiologically to be able to take ourselves as objects to ourselves, perhaps we can resist the appeal of certainty and the assumption that we can manage everything, even paradox. As an alternative we might try exploring the paradox further, not as a way of resolving it, but as a way of achieving deeper understanding. This involves exposure to sitting with the anxiety of not knowing for longer to see what emerges through holding the tension.

Hannah Arendt’s intellectual project was concerned with how we might keep ourselves alive to life’s plurality. For Arendt totalitarianism, what we might think of as the attempt to impose a sense of oneness on things, arises the moment we cover over the differences between human beings. When we treat unique human beings as one, as interchangeable, then we have lost what it means to be human.

When everyone else is swept away unthinkingly by what everyone else believes in, those who think are drawn out of hiding, because their refusal to join in is conspicuous and therebye becomes a form of action. The purging element in thinking, Socrates’ midwifery, that brings out the implications of unexamined opinions and destroys them — values, doctrines, theories and even opinions, is political by implication. For this destruction has an effect on another human faculty, the faculty of judgement which one may call, with some justification, the most political of man’s abilities. It is the faculty to judge particulars without subsuming them under those general rules which can be taught and learned until they grow into habits which can be replaced by other habits and rules. [vi]

What I understand her to be saying here, particularly in the last sentence, is that there is huge importance in our being able to realise the uniqueness of the particular circumstances we find ourselves facing and in not assuming that they are covered by our existing ways of knowing. They may, and they may not. But our abstractions and simplifications are not enough. We have to be able to renew what we know in the face of new particular circumstances that we constantly encounter by continuing to entwine the particular and the general. This is one of the central roles of paradoxical thinking. It may help us when the chips are down.

[i] Aristotle (1998) The Metaphysics, London: Penguin: (1011b13–14).

[ii] Merton, Robert, K. (1957/68), Social Theory and Social Structure, New York: The Free Press.

[iii] Byers, W. (2007) How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction and Paradox to Create Mathematics, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press: 381381.

[iv] Stacey, R., Griffin, D. & Shaw, P. (2000) Complexity and Management: fad or radical challenge to systems thinking, London: Routledge.

Stacey, R. (2010) Complexity and Organizational Reality: Uncertainty and the need to rethink management after the collapse of investment capitalism, London Routledge.

Stacey. R. (2011) Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: the challenge of complexity to ways of thinking about organisations, London: Pearson Education (6th Edition). ISBN-13: 978–0–273–70811–7

Stacey, R. (2012) The Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management: Meeting the challenge of complexity, London: Routledge.

[v] Gabriel, Y. (2013) Management as Surprise: not just the spice of life, but the source of knowledge, M@n@gement, 16(5), 719–731.

[vi] Arendt, H. (1971) Thinking and Moral Considerations, Social Research, 38:3, 417–446.



Taking Experience Seriously

Chris Mowles is Professor of Complexity and Management at Hertfordshire Business School. He recently published Complexity: a key idea for business and society.

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