Is Paradox The New Paradigm?

picI spoke with Jeremy Wright last year, a little while after he had sold his blog, and he commented on the difference between blogging for money and blogging for fun. Since joining Creative Weblogging, I understand what he means.

I often comment on the problem with using financial numbers to drive business. The problem is that it leads to band-aid thinking. Instead of thinking about making customers happy and delivering them solid value, the focus can become the numbers themselves. Managers then try to do whatever it takes to hit the numbers instead of addressing the deeper issues that are really causing them to miss their marks in the first place.

This blog never used to make money. Now it actually does pretty well as far as blogs go. CW has gives me traffic goals and incentives to hit them and while I'm not really under any pressure (TJ understands that as much as I like blogging, it isn't my whole life) I still enjoy the challenge of trying to hit those numbers. But recently I have found my focus shifting. I have found myself focusing on the numbers. Instead of thinking about interesting things to write, I am thinking about ways to get more people to come here. It bothers me that only this week did I realize the hypocrisy or that. Like the companies I sometimes blog about, I have focused on a band-aid solution. Instead of trying to write good posts, I try to write things I think will get picked up on a major aggregator. As a result, I sometimes publish posts in which the quality of thought stops at the end of the title.

The point of all this is that blogging is somewhat paradoxical. If you focus on money and traffic, you usually don't get much of either. You are much better off writing interesting things and focusing on unique thoughts and ideas. Ignore the traffic and it's easier to get it. It is a paradox. It reminds me of Fred's post stating that the best way to get money is to ask for advice instead, and vice versa.

As this has swirled through my head these last few days, I don't think it ends with blogging or raising money for a startup. I think business in general is filled with instances of paradox. The most basic, obviously, is that the best way to maximize your profit is to make profit a secondary concern and focus primarily on your customer. There are other instances too. It is easiest to borrow money when you don't need it. A "good" strategy is actually defined in large part by your ability to execute it. Selling is really less about convincing customers to buy your product and more about identifying the customers that naturally want it.

After thinking through all of this I am left the question embodied in the title of this post. Is paradox the new paradigm? What I mean is, will future business success depend on the ability of managers and leaders to embrace paradox? Will they succeed by hold in their minds two contradictory ideas, each of which can be applied when necessary? I think so.

By embracing paradox, managers will lose the absolutist, half-truth thinking that ignores the context so pertinent to business decisions. These seeming paradoxes often exist in the first place only because we try to apply business rules across all contexts.

Should you hire the best people? Maybe. Sometimes hiring the best people could be your downfall (another paradox). It all depends on the situation and how you define "best." Should you focus or diversify? Both, actually (another paradox). Too much focus leads to "man with hammer sees every problem as a nail" thinking, which could ultimately lead to your demise at the hands of new competitors with new ideas. On the other hand, diversification can lead to situations where managers ignore the other business lines and pursue their own goals at the expense of company growth as a whole. Open your eyes and you will see abundant examples of paradox wherever you work.

I think it is only natural that business exists with this same sort of yin-yang tension that pervades everything else in our lives. Economies and ecosystems are filled with examples of competing goals and conflicting ideas that somehow work themselves out to create balance and, in many cases, an optimal situation.

Maybe it is time to put the absolutes aside for awhile. Maybe your business or your career is struggling because you are focusing on the wrong things. Sometimes end goals are important only because they are a means of defining the path. But you can't ignore the path and assume only the goal matters.

So embrace the complexity and paradox of your world. Spend less time trying to resolve the dilemmas paradox creates, and more time accepting conflicting ideas. Realize that context matters. And remember that changing your focus could be the key to getting exactly what you were so focused on to begin with.

  • Jay

    This reminds me of the ald saw that says do what you like and the money will follow.

  • Very well written. Customers should be the primary concern of businesses, and profit secondary. Only if the primary is satisfied will the secondary have a chance.

  • True, that. I think paradox is also a very useful concept in the pursuit of knowledge in general. There’s something about the human mind that can make sense of seeming senselessness. If science is increasingly about information, then there’s a whole lot of interesting discovery ahead. My two cents.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Rob, I think your posts over the past several weeks have been really good. Perhaps you should have been under the gun all along! As for paradox being the new paradigm, it’s always been the real paradigm; people just want to adopt others to make things appear simpler than they are. It’s Johnnie Moore’s “Complex vs. Complicated” dichotomy that I mentioned in that Mr. T post.

    Back to your “focusing on the right thing” idea, that’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked a Balanced Scorecard approach. It takes one’s thinking from “what financial targets am I trying to hit” to “what customer-facing improvements should I make” to “what processes do I have to change to effect those customer improvements” to “what do I have to learn to create and manage those processes”. Everyone up and down the organization can tell how their own actions are effecting the central goals of the organization.



  • Jason

    Hi Rob, I’m going to have to disagree slightly with your post. Paradoxes are useful, as you noted, not so much because you need to resolve them (though unlike contradictions, all paradoxes are in theory resolvable), but because they force you to take a look at your assumptions. As with most things, asking the right question is the quickest way to get to the answer.

    Resolving, or even attempting to resolve paradoxes are useful IF you have the time for them, because they help to clarify any underlying assumptions. For any given subject, there should always be (in theory, anyways), an “optimal” path – the problem is that the search area is so large, and the rules of the system so unclear, that it is generally impossible to find the optimal path. By looking at the underlying assumptions, we can at least make a guess as to whether or not they reflec the underlying world that we are operating in. If not, then we need new assumptions.

  • John

    Hello Rob,

    I don’t know why you’re calling this notion “paradox”. Consider:

    “Generally in warfare, keeping a nation intact is best, destroying a nation second best; keeping an army intact is best, destroying an army second best; keeping a battalion intact is best, destroying a battalion second best; keeping a company intact is best, destroying a company second best; keeping a squad intact is best, destroying a squad second best. Therefore, to gain a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the highest excellence; to subjugate the enemy’s army without doing battle is the highest of excellence. Therefore, the best warfare strategy is to attack the enemy’s plans, next is to attack alliances, next is to attack the army, and the worst is to attack a walled city. Laying siege to a city is only done when other options are not available.” – Sun Tzu in The Art of War

    Sun Tzu understood the advantages of an indirect strategy, what you’re calling paradox, back in 5th Century B.C.