Dealing with internal contradictions – if they can’t both be true at the same time, then what?

From my post Towards the wholehearted organisation, outside in (May 2018):

It got me thinking that I would love to be known for being in the business of helping organisations to be more wholehearted – less at war with themselves, their contradictions identified and owned so that they can be resolved in some pleasing way. If squeezing out excess work-in-progress is a key strategy for improving our delivery processes, perhaps squeezing out the contradictions is the way to improve our organisations for the mutual benefit of all concerned.

In the draft of the Outside In chapter of Right to Left (2019) I’ve included a version of the above paragraph together with the Christopher Alexander quote that inspired it. However, it seems wrong for the book to raise the prospect of bringing contradictions out into the open without also suggesting some constructive ways of looking at them.

The key question in a nutshell: If X and Y can’t both be true at the same time, then what?

On the premise that it can often be helpful to make explicit the thought processes that lead to our decisions, (perhaps as an aid to creating an agreed precedent or policy for next time), I offer a breakdown of the main ways in which contradictions get resolved. If I’ve missed any important combinations or references, do please let me know!

X and not Y

  • X achieves our goals better (in some defined way) than Y
  • Y does not align with strategic objective, mission, or core purpose X
  • Y is incompatible with core value X

Caution: Whilst it may be good to exclude Y, it’s possible that this decision says little about the merits of X, which may not be better than other alternatives (including doing nothing).

X and not yet Y

  • X naturally precedes Y / Y depends on X
  • X is more urgent than Y / X has a higher opportunity cost than Y (see also Cost of Delay)
  • X has higher priority than Y (because reasons)
  • We choose X to precede Y (because reasons)

Similar cautions apply. Y’s deferral may not justify X starting. And might Y be deferred for so long that it ought to be taken off the table entirely?

An important variation on the first one that an outside-in review might generate: Not Y because we don’t have capability X, the X not previously identified. Begs the obvious question: should we make it a priority to build capability X?

Neither X nor Y, but Z

  • Some higher objective Z either delivers X and Y or renders them unimportant
  • Some prerequisite objective Z comes first, or in other words, Z and not yet X and Y
  • Z as an alternative to X and Y – superior in some way, a better use of our time

X and Y

  • Creative tension: contradiction as a motivation for innovation (see TRIZ)
  • Perhaps, after challenging the assumptions of the apparent contradiction, we can demonstrate that X and Y aren’t necessarily in conflict (see Evaporating Cloud, one of the six Thinking Processes in the Theory of Constraints)
  • Conflict felt at a personal level, needing mediation perhaps

Caution: Beware the cop out, dodging the difficult decision…


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