John wells is a manager and an entrepreneur, not a philosopher. Yet day in and day out the founder of 30-employee Executive Perspectives, a 13-year-old training firm in Brookline, Massachusetts, finds himself wrestling with logical contradictions that might have puzzled Plato.
"One example is the need to empower people to do what they think is best, but at the same time keep everyone moving in the same direction," says Wells. Another: giving customers good value while making enough profit to sustain and grow the company. "That's a tough one to manage." He also wonders, "How do you maintain profitability and yet keep investing for the future?"
Wells isn't the only one to notice that business is permeated with paradoxes, absurdities and contradictions. In fact, an intriguing new school of management thinking holds that managing those paradoxes is the key to business success.
"You have to take these competing forces head-on and understand them," explains Bill Dauphinais, a management consultant and partner at Price Waterhouse in New York City and co-author of The Paradox Principles (Irwin). "Understanding them and dealing with them explicitly will move you a great deal further down the road."
Thus far, paradox-based management has yet to achieve the popular appeal of approaches such as total quality management or teamwork. But advocates of looking at business as paradox say that its requirement for balanced consideration of alternatives has a value that many hot trends in management don't.
"It makes sense," says Scott Shane, director of the DuPree Center for Entrepreneurship at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, "because all of management is about managing paradoxes."
Mark Henricks is a New York City writer who specializes in small-business topics.