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Screen shot 2010-11-19 at 8.30.43 AMCouple of years back I read Albert Low‘s wonderful book “Zen and creative management” that he wrote on 1975 (the year I was born). In the book Low deals with paradox (amongst some other things but the paradox is key ingredient there). One example he uses is the picture of “old woman – young girl”.

First you see either the young girl or the old woman. After a while you start to see both. The paradox is that you can’t see the both at the same time, yet both of the pictures are inherently there as a potential to be realized. When you let the old woman emerge, the young girl vanishes and vice versa.

This is the problem I often see in the field of thinking about organizations, people and social processes. We just can’t accept the paradox and embrace it. Whenever you see “both…and” thinking applied you can be sure that the view from complexity is reduced to the view of  traditional systems thinking. The example of that could be drawn from the picture:

If you talk about the picture containing “both” the old woman “…and” the young girl you completely miss the point. You separate those ideas with your memory, “putting time” between the pictures. If you want to maintain your clarity of mind you have to accept that it is at the same time a picture of old woman-young girl. It is your perception that changes and it is your anxiety of dealing with paradox that forces you to resolve it by applying “both …and” thinking. When you do that you don’t actually resolve the paradox but you just become blind to it. It’s like closing your eyes in the moment of danger in order to escape it – you just lose your ability to act accordingly.

Think about organization. First you can see it either as a system of processes or group of interacting people. When the thinking matures and you get more experience, you might start to see both viewpoints. But if you say that it is both a system …and a group of interacting people – you miss the paradox. You apply time in between – “now I see it as a system, now I see it as people”. It is only when you start to realize it is both at the same time that you are accepting the paradox. Another way to put it is to say it is neither a system …nor people.