University of Delaware
New research by UD associate professor Wendy Smith examines the importance of dynamic thinking in leadership and decision-making.

Embracing paradox

Research considers how leaders can succeed by choosing not to choose


1:12 p.m., July 30, 2014--In an increasingly fast-paced world, people and organizations must make countless decisions about where to best expend their energy while considering the question of how to choose which goals are essential.

Perhaps the best choice is not to choose at all, according to research by Wendy Smith, an associate professor of management in the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, which suggests that the most effective leaders accept and work with contradictory demands at the same time.

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“Both in business and out of business, for a long time the dominant conventional wisdom has been that the way to think about decision-making is to look at the different options, make pro-con lists, pick a choice and then be consistent within that choice,” said Smith. “That’s something that we’ve researched within organizational theory for years. That’s what we teach great leaders to do and that’s what we expect ourselves to do on the individual level.” 

But Smith’s article proposes that other, possibly better options exist. In the article “Dynamic Decision Making,” soon to be published in the top-ranked Academy of Management Journal, Smith examines managers’ strategies for balancing multiple goals.

Smith analyzed detailed qualitative data from six top management teams of strategic business units at a Fortune 500 company. The senior leaders of each team agreed to continue marketing an existing, mature product while commercializing a novel innovation.

“Organizations have to manage for both today and tomorrow,” said Smith. “In today’s world, we’re continuing to perform effectively on what we already have and trying to increase existing performance. In tomorrow’s world, we’re trying to learn new things, develop innovations, things that sometimes disrupt or cannibalize what we already know today. To managers, these strategies feel contradictory. And yet, they have to do both to succeed in the long term.”

Leaders at every level of management must take this into account when balancing seemingly incongruous objectives.

Paradoxical goals

“Leaders face multiple types of competing strategies,” said Smith. “There is this tension between managing bottom-line financial profit while simultaneously thinking about social or environmental responsibility or ethical demands.” Leaders also strive to attend to the demands of both local and global markets at the same time.

While goals like these might seem incompatible, thinking about them as connected and synergistic may be more effective. 

“They’re really nested in one another, and they inform one another,” said Smith. “In this notion of paradoxes, both at the strategic business level and the individual level, there’s a huge amount of possibility of thinking about competing demands and trying to explore both simultaneously. How can we address and engage both of them and be more flexible in doing so?”

When managing paradoxical goals, most advice suggests finding a solution that addresses both alternatives at once. But sometimes this perfect synergy is not possible. 

Instead, Smith’s research found that the most effective senior leadership teams were the ones that could frequently and easily shift their time, human resource and even organizational structure between their existing product and their innovation. 

This dynamic decision-making accommodated both strategies by making micro shifts between these seemingly contradictory demands. 

Two central tactics

Smith discusses two central tactics in her research, both of which are important to successful dynamic decision-making. Differentiating, or focusing on each idea as a separate, distinct goal and providing attention to each one, allows for exploration of unique elements of each project. Integrating, or finding links and connections between goals, creates new tactics that blend multiple intentions at once.

“Sometimes you can move between these two,” said Smith. “The complexity of figuring out when and how to do both is the world of dynamic decision-making.”

The principles behind dynamic decision-making could challenge commonly accepted advice about prioritizing and managing goals, and serve as a more effective alternative.

“Research suggests that psychologically we feel pressure to be consistent, and this challenges that consistency mode,” said Smith. “It says that maybe that’s not always the way in which we are best served in our long-term decision-making. Consistency might lead us to a place where we get stuck in one option and can’t address multiple things.”

Forming identities

Smith’s model for decision-making could also have implications in the way that identities are formed. When pressure to choose one option or the other is reduced, new possibilities emerge.

“Am I a parent or am I a career person?” was one example Smith gave of the questions people feel pressured to answer. She suggests an alternative, an “ongoing tradeoff without having to feel like we have to make a big picture decision.”

“In some ways it’s what we do and in some ways it’s affording ourselves the ability to do that, to be in that world of these nuanced decisions without having to feel like we are a flip-flopper or indecisive, or that we have to live with the challenges of not being consistent,” said Smith. 

This model of decision-making is “challenging that really dominant conventional wisdom that consistency is always beneficial, both at the individual level and at the leadership level.”

As increasingly complex demands emerge in people’s business and personal lives, Smith’s findings suggest that perhaps engaging multiple alternatives at once does not necessarily make someone a wishy-washy or unsuccessful leader. These ideas could help change the fundamental understanding of identity and choice. 

“How can we live in this inconsistent world in a way that is quite useful?” asked Smith. “There’s a tremendous amount of creative benefit, and we can be more creative and more productive by using this world of embracing both.”

Article by Sunny Rosen

Image by Kathy F. Atkinson

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