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March 6, 2013

Harnessing the Power of Paradox

Posted by Sandeep Dadlani (View Profile | View All Posts) at 4:07 AM

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Like it or not, we tend to think in extremes: He is incompetent. This job stinks. I am a failure. My boss loves me. This idea is perfect. She is an angel. 

But there's a danger of looking at the world in black and white. I am reminded  of a recent webinar hosted by Hitendra Wadhwa, a professor at Columbia Business School. His fascinating presentation was titled The Power of Paradox: How to Unlock Your Full Potential by Embracing Opposing Ideas. Wadhwa explains how some of the world's most effective business leaders are incredibly adept at seeing issues in shades of gray. "Great achievers through the ages have secretly cultivated a powerful discipline that has allowed them to operate at their highest potential in life and leadership," Wadha says. "Rather than choosing between two opposing thoughts, values, traits, beliefs or emotions, they have stepped up their game by simultaneously embracing opposites."

So, the next time you're faced with a challenge, don't tell yourself that you will succeed no matter what. And, also  don't tell yourself that there's no way you're going to get through what lies ahead. Instead, try combining both mindsets. Yes, it will be tough but with the right focus, you can succeed. 

I know what you're thinking: When it comes to opening yourself up to opposing ideas, it's easier said than done. But there's a lot of potential for this mindset in the area of innovation. When presented with the question as to who would be more likely to succeed as a salesman, more people would choose the extrovert over the introvert. But it turns out that a person who can be both extroverted and introverted has the best chance of succeeding in that or any job. 

I recently asked a colleague Martin Illsley about this very issue - the importance that some behavioral scientists are placing on embracing opposing ideas in order to innovate and lead. Illsley was an innovation practice leader at Accenture before joining Infosys.  "I think that is absolutely correct," he says, adding that you have to connect with both personalities in order to bring people together. He even used a term that's gaining traction in our professional parlance - the "ambivert." You take the introspective researcher, combine him with the traits of an outgoing fund-raiser, and you've got a person who understands all facets of what it takes to innovate. 

New discoveries in the field of human psychology are prompting behavioral specialists to question age-old measurements and assumptions. For example, personality tests such as Myers-Briggs came out of an era of ideological psychology that placed a lot of emphasis on the merits of being extroverted. But today's research into the psychology of the brain is empirical rather than ideological. A person need not be classified as either extroverted or introverted but rather how effectively he behaves in certain circumstances. 

Consider someone who joins the army. A recruit receives very clear, concise messages as to how to be a soldier during basic training. They live their lives according to a stringent schedule and come away with the knowledge that to stray from the very specific codes and guidelines that they're taught in basic training can be dangerous. But when they get into the field of battle, their world is completely different: When an enemy is attacking, nobody knows the exact schedule or timeline. The soldiers need to be quick on their feet and have the ability to innovate to suit their current needs. Maybe it's that combination of mindsets that helps soldiers survive. They're grounded on an unwavering set of guidelines, yet they're free to build upon them, innovate, and alter them to get an advantage over the enemy. 

In the corporate world, great innovators have a tremendous ability to take unpalatable options and converge them to make everything more palatable. Take the longtime chief executive of General Electric, Jack Welch, as well as the former head of Procter & Gamble, A.G. Lafley. A respected publication once asked both men which element was more important to making a large enterprise to succeed: strategy or execution. Both Welch and Lafley pushed back when presented with having to choose between the two. They both responded that it wasn't an "either or" proposition - both elements are critically important to bringing out the best in an organization. More recently, I attended a session led by Bob McDonald, Chairman and CEO of Procter & Gamble (and Lafley's protégé). Bob, when presented with the choice between growth and profitability clearly responded that both were important.

In a world of extremes, where we often have to choose between up and down or right and left, try choosing "neither" and instead forge your own path to innovation and discovery. You'll be glad you did.

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