Leading into the Future III: From the Pendulum to the Fire
At times we find that the problem is a set of nested dilemmas. One set of conflicting priorities exists within another set of conflicting priorities. For instance, we want to pay one employee a bonus, but are concerned that if we do so other employees who find out about it will be resentful and less likely to collaborate with their bonused colleague. This dilemma, in turn, rests inside an even bigger dilemma: we want to increase salary and benefits for all our employees, yet also are trying to keep down costs because the market in which our product is being sold is highly competitive. These are complex nested dilemmas – not readily solved puzzles.
As organizational leaders, we are likely to often confront the challenge of helping those we lead work with dilemmas and even nested dilemmas. Like other problems, dilemmas can be described as “rugged landscapes.” (Miller and Page, 2007) However, because dilemmas involve multiple elements that are intimately interlinked, they are far more than a cluster or range of mountain peaks of similar size. This type of complex landscape is filled not only with many mountains of about the same height, but also with river valleys, forested plains and many communities (think of the Appalachian Mountains). Compare this with a landscape in which one mountain peak dominates or a series of mountains dominate. In a complex, rugged landscape, one finds not only many competing viewpoints, but also an intricate and often paradoxical interweaving of these differing viewpoints.
Wait. It gets even more challenging! Dilemmas often confront us in complex rugged landscapes with the need to balance or manage two or more opposed, yet equally valid, interests or polarities. Whenever multiple stakeholders with unique interests are involved, it is safe to expect a dilemma to present itself for the leader who intersects with it. Barry Johnson (1996), the “dean” of polarity management, suggests as a first step for handling everyday dilemmas that leaders identify the two legitimate but opposite forces at work in the dilemma, and then analyze each side’s benefits and disadvantages. Organizationally, the two opposing forces are often embodied in “camps.”