A non-linear approach to reconciling (business) dilemmas

February 20, 2008

At the root of my second story on the organization considered as a whole and consisting of many (interdependent) parts, lies a dilemma that many executives experience: How to optimize their own department or function versus optimizing the process (that creates the whole of an organization) in which their department or function participates?

The more they focus on their own function, the more difficult it becomes to focus on the cross-functional process – Ackoff would say “managing the interactions” – in which they participate and vice versa.

Common examples include sales people needing flexibility to customize their sales offerings so they can maximize their sales (and their bonus), whereas operations can only keep costs and defects low as long as products or services are standardized. Or, the desire to act global as a company, but also the need for the business units in countries to act local. How can I centralize and also decentralize effectively is yet another dilemma common to many organizations because of the desire to be both in control and efficient and to give local autonomy because there are local situations than cannot be covered by centralized rules. A dilemma is therefore a proposition consisting of two desirable states, but where moving towards one state will go at the expense of the other.

The essence of the reconciliation of a dilemma lies in the recognition that a dilemma is a non-linear problem and therefore needs a non-linear problem solving approach. It replaces “either-or” thinking with “and-and & through-and-through” thinking. For example, how can I through centralization become better at decentralization and how can I through decentralization become better at centralization?

Fons Trompenaars goes so far as to claim that any leader should have the ability to lead his people through a dilemma reconciliation process simply because not reconciling a dilemma will lead to compromise seeking behavior – which is inherent if you consider a dilemma as a linear problem. His approach recognizes a dilemma as a non-linear issue and consists of first exploring what the core dilemmas are in a company. He then verifies these dilemmas in a dialogue and subsequently helps executives with the reconciliation of their dilemmas. To this end he and his associates have designed a heuristic process that includes the use of a epithets, dialogue and presenting the dilemma in a non-linear chart. For example, for a cross-functional dilemma, you would bring a cross-functional team together and facilitate their reconciliation process. They would therefore also own the process and the solutions.

In his view, and my personal experience in numerous workshops confirms this, the process of bringing a group of people together and facilitate their reconciliation efforts is as important as the content. He advocates that making small steps is better and more important than going for the big bang. He also suggests that while you may never be able to fully reconcile the dilemma, moving forward in the right direction is key. So it is not so much about ideal solutions but recognizing that the emerging alternatives are better than what you have today. For further exploration I recommend you read “Managing People across Cultures” that in chapter 8 describes the dilemma reconciliation steps and Trompenaar’s most recent publication “Riding the Whirlwind.”

Other approaches to dilemma management are Polarity Management and TRIZ, a Russian acronym for Inventive Problem Solving. I find TRIZ fascinating. TRIZ as a method originated in the former Soviet Union in the technical sciences, but was soon extended to non-technical problems.TRIZ is grounded in science and uses proven principles to begin to reconcile a dilemma. For example, “separation in time” is one such principle that can reconcile some dilemmas.

A classic example is the Meyers-Briggs notion that people have either a preference for thinking or for feeling, which is a classic linear approach. When you frame it as a dilemma – how can I be on the one hand a thinker and on the other hand also a feeler, you can apply the principle of separation in time. For example, you could ask people in a meeting to rationally think through a problem using a problem solving cycle. You could next ask how people feel about the problem and possible solutions. Edward de Bono would suggest, use the white hat first and the red hat later. Thereby reconciling the thinker-versus feeler dilemma.

The U.S. based company Ideation International, where a group of TRIZ scientists have settled and conduct their research and consulting services, has created software that supports the process of dilemma reconciliation. In particular I recommend the Knowledge Wizard for further exploration.

Because the dilemma reconciliation process recognizes the complexity of dilemmas and opens up the communication through a heuristic process, and because it is ideal to apply it in both small and large group meetings, I find this method consistent with the existing library of Cognitive-Edge methods and I therefore warmly recommend it.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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