It’s not a problem, it’s a paradox

Conflicting demands and tensions are the norm in our home and work lives. As students, the more we learn, the less we realise we know. In business, we spend money to make money. And in our personal relationships, sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind.

It's often the case that we treat these conflicting demands as problems that need to be solved with one single solution. But many of the challenges which are related to human behaviour are not problems – they’re paradoxes. And these challenges can’t be resolved by tackling one demand at a time, or by making a ‘final’ decision.

The problem-solution approach of classic innovation is no match for these kinds of challenges. Human-centred innovation works on a deeper level to identify – and work with – the tensions at play.  

Thinking like a revolutionary

Research shows that revolutionary thinkers are those who have spent a considerable amount of time grappling with paradoxes. Einstein’s relativity theory taught us that an object could be at rest and moving depending on the position of the observer. In the same vein, physicist Niel’s Bohr taught us that energy existed as both waves and particles – despite the fact that they couldn’t be observed at the same time.

This understanding of paradox offers us a whole new way of looking at problems. Our role as anthropologists, designers and strategists is to identify these tensions at play and empower businesses to embrace this friction and use it as a tool for change.  

Reforming business when business is good

A 2008 Harvard Business Review study on Toyota Motor Corporation found that paradoxes were rife within their corporate culture. The core of their organisational strategy was to maintain stability whilst encouraging constant reform – or to ‘reform business when business is good’.    

Toyota’s focus on ‘hard’ innovation allowed them to keep improving their manufacturing vehicles. But their mastery of ‘soft’ innovation allows them to create a culture whereby they could grapple with complex challenges by coming up with fresh ideas. Toyota’s business model, as a result, mirrored human creativity as its culture of contradictions places humans at the centre

Embracing the ying and the yang

Although paradoxes often trip us up, embracing contradictory ideas may actually be the secret to creativity and leadership. Paradoxes are something that have existed for time immemorial – the ancient philosophy of ying and yang being the most obvious example.

Influential business thinker Roger Martin has developed this concept into a problem-solving methodology called “integrative thinking”, where embracing this tension generates a creative resolution that is superior to pursuing the ideas in isolation.

Embracing apparent contradictions can break down our assumptions and offer us a whole new way of looking at a problem. Rather than seeing the potential conflicts as something to avoid, we can begin to view the competing demands as an opportunity for growth and a source of motivation. Isn’t that true innovation after all?