Management Articles


Paradoxical Balancing Acts in Organization Improvement

By: Jim Clemmer

Jim Clemmer is an international keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, and president of The CLEMMER Group, a North American network of organization, team, and personal improvement consultants based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. His other bestsellers include Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance, and his most recent book, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. His web site is

"Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart go together."
ó John Ruskin, 19th century English critic, artist and social reformer
Too often, we see the world in narrow binary, either/or terms. Odd or even, closed or open, introverted or extroverted, individual or group, profitable or unprofitable, rational or irrational, right or wrong, real or imagined, hard or soft, emotional or dispassionate, and vertical or horizontal are common examples of how we try to neatly pair contradictory opposites.

But top performers look beyond either/or to and/also. Instead of seeing just polarization, they see beyond the contradictions that limit most people. They are able to manage the third position that emerges from balancing the two opposites. As professor, consultant, and author, Charles Handy, points out in his book, The Age of Paradox, "paradox does not have to be resolved, only managed."

Five thousand years ago in ancient China, Fu Hsi developed an "and/also philosophy" that is still with us today. His concept of yin and yang taught that much of life consists of two opposite and sometimes opposing forces. As with male and female, the very existence of each may depend on its opposite. In other cases, one may transform or kill the other such as fire and water, darkness and light, or cold and hot.

Samuel Johnson, the 18th century, poet, essayist, and journalist captured this interdependence of contrasting forces when he wrote, "the lustre of diamonds is invigorated by the interposition of darker bodies; the lights of a picture are created by the shades; the highest pleasure which nature has indulged to sensitive perception is that of rest after fatigue."

Finding the Right Balance

Improvement Efforts Must...
And Also...
  • Produce quick, short term results
  • Change long term personal habits and organization culture
  • Expect the best
  • Be prepared for the worst
  • Built consistency, discipline, and a systematic approach
  • Constantly change, experiment, and learn by "mucking around"
  • Respond to and serve existing customers
  • Develop new customers and markets by uncovering unmet needs
  • Amplify the potential pain
  • Focus on the gain
  • Continuously improve in small increments wherever possible
  • Make breakthrough changes

The key lessons of the yin and yang philosophy or of managing paradox is finding a balance that's right for the conditions and circumstances. That means we need to learn how to deal with the ambiguity and uncertainty of and/also. While many of those balances have always been dynamic and changing, today's hyper speed of change makes them all the more so. The words of Voltaire, the French philosopher and dramatist, ring even truer today then they did in the 16th century, "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one."

© Copyright 2001 The CLEMMER Group

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