Against Common Sense: managing amid the paradoxes of everyday organisational life

The following is the text of a talk given by Chris Mowles at the University of Hertfordshire on Friday Feb 13th as part of the MBA Masterclass series.

In this talk I try to cover four things:

I address why I think there is a problem with much contemporary management theory and explain why I think it is necessary to argue against what is taken to be common sense in management.Unknown

I introduce paradox and explain its roots in philosophy and point to how it manifests itself in the complexity sciences, as an alternative to some of the simplified assumptions and dualisms in much contemporary management theory.

I give some examples of how paradox manifests itself in everyday organisational life.

And finally I suggest some implications for managers for taking paradox seriously for what they might find themselves doing at work.

Why against common sense?

I am using the title of this talk, against common sense, to make a general critique of what we might think of as the majority literature on management, but also to highlight the meaning of the word paradox, from the Greek para doxa, or against what people ordinarily hold to be true. In using the term ‘majority literature’, I am not trying to suggest that all management literature suggests the same thing, or that all business schools teach the subject uncritically (this is certainly not the case at the University of Hertfordshire and on the MBA, for example). There is a flourishing substantial minority critical tradition in management theory.

But overwhelmingly, orthodox management journals and books assume that managers are in control, can predict and design organisational futures and organisational culture, can purpose transformation and innovation. Even when the majority literature identifies contradiction or paradox as a phenomenon, it argues that managers can control this too, often suggesting that paradox can be ‘unleashed’ for the creative good of the organisation, or can be brought into dynamic balance.[i]

I’m arguing against these assumptions and am assuming instead that we live in a radically unpredictable world, which is not the same as saying it is random. We experience order and disorder, routine and accident, we are in control and not in control in both the formal and shadow sides of organisational life. There is no privileged place to stand which resolves these paradoxes or brings them into balance.

The majority literature proceeds by splitting opposite poles apart and puts managers in charge of the split, or privileges one pole over the other. So, for example, and to caricature, we are asked to believe that innovation is good and stability bad, we are invited to aspire to an inspirational future in contrast with an inadequate present, action is privileged over thinking, and the manager is considered to be separate from whomever, or whatever they are managing. It is possible to do this because orthodox literature abstracts away from the living complexity of every day organisational life to produce models and tools which are simplifications of what we experience on the day to day. Of course these simplifications can be very helpful, but only if we continue to remember that they are derived from what William James referred to as life’s ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’[ii]. When we take up these simplifications and try to apply them in particular contexts at particular time, they may bring about the opposite of what we intend unless we continue to pay attention to what arises as a result of our activities. I am arguing that it is important to notice both poles of our experience, the disorder that arises from our attempts to order, the unpredictability that remains despite the power of our predictions.

So how might the idea of paradox help? Working with paradox requires a different way of thinking than resting solely on propositional logic (‘if we do this, then that will happen’), rationality and abstraction alone. It is not enough to assume that we can think in the abstract and then apply our thinking ‘in practice’. Noticing paradox allows us to acknowledge a characteristic of thinking which has fascinated us since the ancient Greeks: our ability to conceive of one thing and then its opposite, both at the same time. As both Kant and Hegel more recently identified, our thinking has the capacity to overreach itself[iii]. This may be potentially confusing, but it also holds the possibility of allowing us to do more justice to highly complex phenomena which we are trying to understand, rather than just flattening them or oversimplifying. Paradox permits more complex thinking.

Paradox: what it is and what it isn’t

Simply put, paradox arises when two mutually exclusive self-referencing ideas, define each other but negate each other both at the same time. I have already been using a number of examples above when I talked about the predictable unpredictability of organisational life, or contrasted a general abstraction which is taken up in particular contexts.

One of the first examples of paradox is thought to be the true/false paradox of Epimenides. Epimenides, who was from Crete, claimed that ‘all Cretans are liars’. Whichever conclusion we come to about this statement leaves us with a problem. If the statement is true, then Epimenides, a Cretan, is lying and the statement is false. If the statement is false, that not all Cretans are liars, then Epimenides must by lying, which makes the statement true. The statement is unresolvable because one conclusion immediately leads you to its opposite.

In a form like this a paradox can be no more than a maddening play with words, and is sometimes referred to as a vicious paradox. And this form of paradox has a strong tradition in literature – Hamlet says to his mother that he has to be cruel to be kind, for example – where it serves to provoke, to complexify and to be playful. What interests me more, though, is the way that paradox has been taken up by philosophers and sociologists as way of extending an argument about complex social phenomena, which I will explore more fully below.

Paradox is not the same as a dilemma, a double bind, or a chiasm. The most talked about dilemma in management literature is often presented as a paradox, the so-called explore/exploit paradox: whether firms should go on exploring for new products, or whether they should exploit the innovations they have already made. And although I am reluctant to be pedantic, this is not a paradox according to the definition I have given above, but a resource dilemma.

A double bind has some of the qualities of a paradox but presents two negative choices with a further obligation to choose one of them. So the famous example is of the controlling mother who gives her son two ties for his birthday, and when he puts one on to show her she asks: ‘what’s wrong with the other one?’ In the 1980s U2 sang ‘I can’t live/With or without you.’ A double bind is maddening and sometimes presents as a manifestation of mental illness. Double bind figured prominently in the work of anthropologist Gregory Bateson[iv], who collaborated with colleagues on the etiology of schizophrenia. A chiasm is a trope of rhetoric which also works with opposites, exemplified in John F Kennedy’s injunction to his fellow Americans that they should: ‘ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.’

Paradox and the natural sciences

Whilst it figures prominently in the history of philosophy and in literature, paradox is much less likely to occur overtly in accounts of natural science thinking, because, as Aristotle first articulated it: ‘the most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.’[v] Natural science methods are predicated on the idea of eliminating contradiction and deploy a range of methods including logic, to do away with it. This may account for the absence of reflection on paradox in the orthodox management literature if it aspires to being much more like the natural sciences, such as the evidence-based management movement. This last movement often construes evidence to mean that which, say, a medical researcher using randomized control trials (RCTs) would treat as the highest form of evidence. It focuses on the certain, the provable and the logical.

However, as a number of sociologists of science have pointed out, elegant and parsimonious accounts of findings in natural science research inevitably leave out the complex circumstances in which discovery took place and how they were produced. It might be a problem if the evidence-based management movement bases their understanding of what management needs on an idealized account of science. For example Robert Merton, the father of the sociology of science highlighted exactly this point when he observed that scientific discovery rested on a mixture of wisdom and chance:

“The serendipity pattern refers to the fairly common experience of observing an unanticipated, anomalous and strategic datum which becomes the occasion for developing a new theory or for extending an existing theory… The datum is, first of all, unanticipated. A research directed toward the test of one hypothesis yields a fortuitous by-product, an unexpected observation which bears upon theories not in question when the research was begun. Secondly, the observation is anomalous, surprising, either because it seems inconsistent with prevailing theory or with other established facts. In either case, the seeming inconsistency provokes curiosity… And thirdly, in noting that the unexpected fact must be strategic, i.e., that it must permit of implications which bear upon generalized theory, we are, of course, referring rather to what the observer brings to the datum than to the datum itself. For it obviously requires a theoretically sensitized observer to detect the universal in the particular.”[vi]

What I notice in Merton’s formulation is that he is suggesting in the last line the paradox of discovery: that of finding the universal in the particular. This formulation is very close to what Aristotle understood by his term phronesis, or practical wisdom, despite his abhorrence of contradiction. For Aristotle, we demonstrate practical wisdom, which is not a science in his terms, by being able to bring together the particular relevance of more general concepts in a certain place at a particular time. I will return to this point later when I take up the implications for what managers can be doing on the day to day when thinking about paradox in the last section of this talk.

As another example of the practice of seemingly logical practice itself, here is what a contemporary mathematician David Byers said about mathematics:

“Ambiguity and paradox are aspects of mathematical thought that differentiate the ‘trivial’ from the ‘deep’. The ‘trivial’ arises from the elimination of the ambiguous. The ‘deep’ involves a complex multi-dimensionality such as those evoked by the successful resolution of situations of ambiguity and paradox. Even the word ‘resolution’ is misleading in this context because it usually implies the reduction of the ambiguous to the logical and the linear. What really happens is that the ambiguity gives birth to a larger context, a unified framework that contains the various potentialities that were inherent in the original situation.”[vii]

Byers’ formulation of the ‘unified framework’ which contains the potentialities of the original contradiction is for me very close to Hegel’s understanding of Aufhebung, the process of paradoxical dialectic which unifies contradictions in a higher unity, which again is beset by another contradiction.

Additionally there is a branch of the natural sciences, the sciences of complexity, which also demonstrates non-linearity and paradox. One of the first people to notice the implications of the complexity sciences for thinking about social life and the importance of paradox is my colleague Ralph Stacey[viii] and I draw heavily on his work here. imagesFractal geometry, for example, produces patterns of regular irregularity as is demonstrated here in a Mandelbrot set, named after the mathematician who popularized them. The pattern is infinitely complex, yet is created by a relatively simple iterating formula, which combines real and imaginary numbers, and where the output of one iteration is fed in as the input of the next. The pattern is both regular and irregular at every degree of scale.

We can see this paradoxical pattern of regular irregularity repeated throughout nature from small snowflakes through to mountain ranges:


Another branch of the complexity sciences, complex adaptive systems, which are agent-based computer models demonstrating evolutionary behaviour, also enact a paradox. The models are intended to simulate how order andIDL TIFF file disorder arise within a population of, say, ants or termites, or the synapses in a human brain; in each of these examples there is no obvious control centre, and the coherence of the whole population arises from the micro-activity of each of the individual agents interacting locally with other, similar agents. One paradox of the computer-based model is that the local interaction of the agents produces the population-wide pattern, but at the same time the population-wide pattern imposes constraints on exactly how the agents can interact.

As Stacey has argued very clearly, models may be helpful, whatever their source domain, but it is also necessary to think them through in social terms. It is important not to fall into the trap of claiming, for example, that organisations are fractals, or complex adaptive systems, but the models may tell us something about the nature of social life, which I argued above, is both regular and irregular, predictable and unpredictable at the same time. The models and organisational life share this in common. Many of the scholars we draw on in the Doctor of Management programme, the pragmatists Mead and Dewey, the sociologists Elias and Bourdieu, also noticed the paradoxical tendencies of social life, a couple of which I will elaborate next.

Two examples from organisational life

In this short talk I am obliged to simplify to a degree, but I have been arguing that orthodox management literature proceeds from the assumption that the manager is split off from the organization s/he is managing and decides rationally and objectively how to manage. In doing so they privilege one pole of a paradox or somehow bring them into balance.

The sociologist Norbert Elias found this kind of thinking deeply dissatisfying. Since we are highly social beings, he argued, we can never be objective about how we were formed as subjects. A much more helpful expression is to think of our participation in social life as always being an amalgam of involvement and detachment.[ix] It is impossible to be entirely detached about what we are doing, nor is it always helpful to be fully involved, particularly if we have managerial responsibilities. Elias leads us to think that we are both involved and detached at the same time and suggests the possibility that we might become more involved about our detachment. We might notice that we are caught up in a game and pay attention to the way we are influencing who we are working with, but also how they are influencing us.

He put this a different way and with another paradox by arguing that we should try to take the perspective of both the airman and the swimmer.[x] On the one hand we are caught up in longer term trends, such as our current fixation with leadership and innovation, for example, which we have little chance of substantially influencing. On the other hand we are also swimmers in the current of how particular projects to innovate, or to develop leadership are carried out. We can notice how the eddies of the particular current we find ourselves in push us hither and yon and if we do so then perhaps we can detect some degree of freedom in how to behave. There is no splitting the general trend from the particular manifestation of the trend: both arise at the same time, but being aware of their contradictory co-presence may give us a greater degree of freedom.

You may notice here exactly the same formulation that Elias uses, pointing to the paradox of the general in the particular that both Aristotle and Robert Merton used when the former was writing about practical judgement, or phronesis, and the latter wrote about the practice of science.

The second organizational example I want to think about is the innovation discourse in organizations when there is a tendency to split off an idealized future from an imperfect present and/or past. This is usually accompanied by what I usually term an anxiety narrative, how, if we don’t innovate continuously we will be overtaken by India and China, who are after our livelihoods. The fantasy of continuous innovation leads to prescriptions for innovation champions, for planned projects with milestones and deliverables. You will notice what a long way this kind of thinking is from the combination of wisdom and serendipity which Merton points to when writing about the practice of science. In my forthcoming book[xi] I narrate how I attended a conference in Denmark where the majority of the speakers spoke into this rational, planned, willed innovation discourse. But in the breakout groups where people discussed their innovation projects in more detail there was much rueful reflection on the fact that there were endless breakdowns within and between organizations trying to innovate. Perhaps the finance department withheld the necessary funds; perhaps colleagues not involved in the project were jealous and would block the activities; perhaps customers or clients didn’t want the innovation which was proposed. In all of these stories it was noticeable how trying to innovate sometimes provoked stuckness, and how creative improvisations sometimes arose from unexpected obstacles.

All of this led me to realize how intertwined stability and change are, and how improvisation is needed even to make regular activities regular. It is not so easy to separate, or even recognize, the truly innovative. Nor is innovation a good in and of itself, as the development of innovative debt restructuring packages before the 2008 financial crash demonstrates. Whether we notice innovation and what we call innovative also reflects power relationships and ideological choices. What we call innovative today may be a disaster tomorrow.

The consequences for managers

One of the things I have been suggesting, then, drawing on Elias, is that we are not detached from organizational life contemplating it objectively but are caught up in the game, forming it and being formed by it both at the same time. How might we notice more carefully how we are played by the game so that we have some more options about how to play? This means paying attention to every day activity and noticing how general trends, perhaps ones which have developed over the longer term are played out between particular people at a particular time.

This is something I notice particularly when I am invited into an organization to undertake a consultancy. How are people inviting me, or blocking me, from playing the organizational game with them? What do they think of as ‘natural’ and just the way the world is? What language do they use and how do they talk about what they are doing and what others are doing. Who are the heroes and villains? Contrary to orthodox recommendations about consultancy practice, where it is assumed that consultants are ‘above’ politics, I think of myself as being detached from this particular game in the sense that I have less stake in it, but nonetheless am invited to join groups and am excluded from others along with everyone else because of the power relationships.

If models, visions and strategies are simplifications from the complex background of organizational life, how might we pay attention together as to how these abstractions play out in practice? How are we formed by our own expectations of what might happen and those of other people?

Yiannis Gabriel points out[xii] that the word serendipity, picked up and used by Merton in his description of the practice of scientists, was coined by the art historian Horace Walpole and derived from his knowledge of the ancient Persian tale of the three princes of Serendip. The princes of Serendip kept having happy accidents, discoveries of things they were not looking for. They were able to see the universal relevance of particular things: in other words they were able to exercise practical judgement, phronesis, through having sufficient wisdom and judgement to see the importance of something once it came to light. How might we as managers better cultivate practical judgement, the combination of wisdom and experience?

One method which seems to work well in surfacing judgement on the Doctor of Management is meeting occasionally with no particular end in view: with no agenda and nowhere to get to by the end of the meeting. This is a very different way of coming together than is tolerated in many contemporary organisations where meeting together is a ‘luxury’ which mustn’t turn into ‘a talking shop’. Just occasionally talk is all we need.

How might managers remain tolerant of the often contradictory and paradoxical pressures they find themselves caught up in, without the need to rush to premature closure, or to assume that they can be wished, or managed away? If paradox is a habit of thought, arising G.H Mead might say[xiii] because we have developed physiologically to be able to take ourselves as objects to ourselves, how can we resist the appeal of certainty and the assumption that we can manage everything, even paradox? As an alternative we might try exploring the paradox further, not as a way of resolving it, but as a way of achieving deeper understanding.

Finally, I wanted to leave you with some reflections on the unsplittable paradox of thought and action by one of my favourite thinkers, Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s intellectual project was concerned with how we might keep ourselves alive to life’s plurality. She argues that totalitariansim arises the moment we cover over the differences between human beings, and lose our ability to start things anew together. There is a danger, she argued, that we convince ourselves that we can do everything, or perhaps do nothing:

“When everyone else is swept away unthinkingly by what everyone else believes in, those who think are drawn out of hiding, because their refusal to join in is conspicuous and therebye becomes a form of action. The purging element in thinking, Socrates’ midwifery, that brings out the implications of unexamined opinions and destroys them – values, doctrines, theories and even opinions, is political by implication. For this destruction has an effect on another human faculty, the faculty of judgement which one may call, with some justification, the most political of man’s abilities. It is the faculty to judge particulars without subsuming them under those general rules which can be taught and learned until they grow into habits which can be replaced by other habits and rules.” [xiv]

What I understand her to be saying here, particularly in the last sentence, is that there is huge importance in our being able to realise the uniqueness of the particular circumstances we find ourselves facing and in not assuming that they are covered by our existing ways of knowing. Our abstractions and simplifications are not enough. We have to be able to renew what we know in the face of new particular circumstances that we constantly encounter. It may help us when the chips are down.


[i] A good example of how academics think that paradox can be brought into balance is: Smith, W. K., & Lewis, M. W. (2011) Toward a theory of paradox: A dynamic equilibrium model of organizing, Academy of Management Review, 36(2): 381-403.

[ii] James, W. (1890/1990) The Principles of Psychology, vols 1 and 2, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[iii] Kainz, H. (1988) Paradox, Dialectic and System: a Contemporary Reconstruction of the Hegelian Problematic, London: Pennsylvania State University Press.

[iv] Bateson, G. (1970) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[v] Aristotle (1998) The Metaphysics, London: Penguin: (1011b13-14).

[vi] Merton, Robert, K. (1957/68), Social Theory and Social Structure, New York: The Free Press.

[vii] Byers, W. (2007) How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction and Paradox to Create Mathematics, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press: 381381.

[viii] Stacey, R., Griffin, D. & Shaw, P. (2000) Complexity and Management: fad or radical challenge to systems thinking, London: Routledge.

Stacey, R. (2010) Complexity and Organizational Reality: Uncertainty and the need to rethink management after the collapse of investment capitalism, London Routledge.

Stacey. R. (2011) Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: the challenge of complexity to ways of thinking about organisations, London: Pearson Education (6th Edition). ISBN-13: 978-0-273-70811-7

Stacey, R. (2012) The Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management: Meeting the challenge of complexity, London: Routledge.

[ix] Elias, N. (1956) Problems of involvement and detachment, British Journal of Sociology, 7: 226-252.

[x] Elias, N. (2001) The Society of Individuals, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 12.

[xi] Mowles, C (2015) Managing in Uncertainty: complexity and the paradoxes of every day organizational life, London: Routledge.

[xii] Gabriel, Y. (2013) Management as Surprise: not just the spice of life, but the source of knowledge, M@n@gement, 16(5), 719-731.

[xiii] Mead, G.H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[xiv] Arendt, H. (1971) Thinking and Moral Considerations, Social Research, 38:3, 417-446.

3 thoughts on “Against Common Sense: managing amid the paradoxes of everyday organisational life

  1. Pingback: Against Common Sense | Phillip Bonser

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