The Problem With Paradox

The dictionary defines a paradox as a statement or group of statements that, despite sound reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems to defy logic or intuition. An example of a paradox is: “This statement is false”—if it is, it is not; and if it isn’t, it is.  

A well-known project management example is Cobb’s Paradox: “We know why projects fail; we know how to prevent their failure—so why do they still fail?” The apparently true statement is that we know how to prevent project failure, but do we really know how to make projects successful?  And if we do, the illogical element is, why do we let them fail?

This concept extends into the realm of project management. Virtually every management system generates a range of contradictions that can be removed by better design. It also creates a series of paradoxes that can’t be removed because both factors that create the paradox are important, but at the same time contradict each other.

This type of management paradox is defined as “a persistent contradiction between interdependent elements that resist a simple binary choice between the elements.”

Some of the more common paradoxes found in most organizations include:

  • The need to manage the tension between consistency (following the rules) versus flexibility (creativity to enhance outcomes)
  • The need to mitigate risk to provide certainty versus the need to take risks to seize opportunities
  • The need for planning and control versus the need for agility to respond to issues
  • The need for standard operating procedures to maximize quality versus the need for continuous improvement to enhance quality

The persistent nature of every paradox means the decision maker has to get used to living with contradictions. Dealing with the paradox requires intuitive judgment to decide on the best balance to strike between the competing elements in the current situation.

Group decision making, diversity, and consensus can help achieve the best judgment call. But there will always be viable alternatives—and any change in the situation will usually require the judgment to be adjusted. The problem with any intuitive judgment is that different people will arrive at different conclusions because they apply a different frame of reference to the problem.

The final element that makes paradox hard to live with is hindsight.  Regardless of the decision made, balancing the competing elements in a paradox involves a compromise and different people will have differing opinions of the optimum balance point.

When circumstances at a later date show there was a better balance point, criticizing the original decision (and the decision maker) is very easy. The 20/20 vision afforded by hindsight rarely matches the uncertain fog that surrounded the possible futures confronting the decision maker. 

Math does not help either; binary decisions have a 50/50 chance of being correct and these odds can be improved by the application of good decision-making processes. A paradox presents a continuum of choice. That means there is an almost unlimited array of possible options and the one chosen is highly unlikely to be the best in hindsight—the best outcome one can hope for is one that is reasonably close to the optimum.

This type of decision presents a real challenge to trained engineers and technical managers who expect to find the right solution for every problem.

Generally, at the technical level, there are correct solutions. But, if not, in most cases you know a decision is needed and can choose the lesser of two evils.

Good managers decide—lucky ones get it right (and you can usually correct wrong decisions).

The further up the organizational ladder you move, the more you will be exposed to paradox. Every decision you make to balance the competing elements in a paradox will be open to criticism.

It’s a tough place to be. How would you deal with a paradox in your environment?


Stevbros delivers project management training worldwide, our courses have proven their worldwide acceptance and reputation by being the choice of project management professionals in 168 countries.

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