• Toby Sinclair

Both/and Thinking by Wendy Smith, Marianne Lewis

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⭐ Rating: 9/10 - Recommended For: Leaders


3 Big Ideas from Both/and Thinking 💡


  1. Either/or thinking is limited at best, detrimental at worst. The danger lies in overemphasizing one side of a paradox whilst neglecting the other.

  2. Navigating paradox involves shifting our assumptions, adopting mindsets and underlying beliefs that enable us to cognitively hold two opposing forces at the same time. Shifting our assumptions is not easy. Engaging with paradox often brings us to the limits of our rational thought. We can feel queasy peering over the edge toward the absurd or the illogical.

  3. Many of us believe that truth is ubiquitous—that if something is true, its opposite must be false. “Yes, and” reminds us that there are multiple truths and that we, therefore, do not have to simply reject someone when they challenge our assumptions. Importantly, honouring someone else’s reality does not mean that we have to agree with it. It means that we recognize and respect their reality. We can then learn from and expand on this reality.


2 Best Quotes from Both/and Thinking 💬


Throughout the book, we use language that reinforces this notion of coping, rather than controlling. We don’t talk about resolving paradoxes but instead describe navigating, engaging with, or leveraging them. Rather than talk about minimizing or resisting tensions, we speak of accepting and embracing them.

Paradox is defined as.....Contradictory, yet interdependent elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time
Both/and thinking summary Image

Top Takeaway


You face leadership dilemmas every day.

  • Do I tell or ask?

  • Do I speak or listen?

  • Do I step in or step back?

An internal tug of war.


With uncertainty, you go with the safest option. Which often isn’t the path of growth.


How do you resolve these tensions?


You don’t.


Move away from this vs that.


Towards this AND that.


Embrace the third space. Where opposites can exist together.

"The CEO of Starbucks recently responded to a question about whether the company was trying to offer customers a convenient, quick cup of coffee or build a space for gathering community. He explained, “But we don’t believe there needs to be this type of a tradeoff.… [O]ur third place can and will continue to unite both experiences.”"

With this in mind, I’ve been revisiting a paradox close to my heart.


Coaching vs Mentoring.


Coaching 101 teaches these definitions:

  • Coaching = asking questions, never giving advice.

  • Mentoring = sharing your advice and expertise.

I subscribed to this for a long time.


But more recently I’m most curious about the third space. Where leaders are coaching AND mentoring in a single conversation. Telling and asking. Speaking and listening.


A dynamic dance in the third space.


It’s in this space where you operate.


Your ability to navigate these tensions determines your success.


Here are a few more thoughts.


What do you think?


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Big Ideas Expanded


Why Both/and Thinking?


Life is as complex as we are. Sometimes our vulnerability is our strength, our fear develops our courage, and our woundedness is the road to our integrity. It is not an either/or world.

Rachel Naomi Remen


Messy problems are difficult because they present us with dilemmas—choices between alternatives.

  • Do I stick with the comfort of my current career path or make a bold jump to a new opportunity?

  • Do I do what’s best for my company overall or what’s best for individual employees?

  • Do I spend my time focusing on my own needs or put those needs aside to be there for others?


We feel tension—the experience of opposition. It feels like an inner tug-of-war, and it begs us for a response.


Technical problems and adaptive challenges:

Technical problems may be very complex and critically important (like replacing a faulty heart valve during cardiac surgery), but they have known solutions that can be implemented with current knowledge. They can be resolved through the application of authoritative expertise and through the organization’s current structures, procedures and ways of doing things. In contrast, adaptive challenges have no road map. They are messy, uncertain, emergent, and filled with competing demands. Adaptive challenges are paradoxical.

To navigate these kinds of challenges, leaders need to be ambidextrous.


Tackling messy problems means navigating three attributes:

  1. Tensions include all types of situations where alternative expectations and demands are in opposition.

  2. Dilemmas present opposing alternatives, each option offering a logical solution on its own.

  3. Paradoxes are interdependent, persistent contradictions that lurk within our presenting dilemmas.


Challenges of leadership are mired in paradoxes. Scholars consistently point to opposing yet interwoven demands that leaders face, such as tensions between authenticity and transparency, technical skills and emotional intelligence, and learning and performing.


Both/and thinking begins with assumptions, mindsets and underlying beliefs that enable us to cognitively hold two opposing forces at the same time. The first step in shifting our approach is changing how we frame the problem. Rather than asking, “Should I choose A or B?” both/and thinkers ask, “How can I accommodate A and B?”


Rather than asking if an object was in motion or at rest, Einstein wondered if an object could be both in motion and at rest at the same time.

Rather than assume that the world is consistent, linear, and static, both/and thinking assumes that the world is contradictory, circular, and dynamic.


Navigating paradox involves shifting our assumptions, adopting mindsets and underlying beliefs that enable us to cognitively hold two opposing forces at the same time. Shifting our assumptions is not easy. Engaging with paradox often brings us to the limits of our rational thought. We can feel queasy peering over the edge toward the absurd or the illogical.


The problem is not the problem; the problem is how we think about the problem.

Paul Watzlawick


Navigating Paradox


Paradox defined:

Contradictory, yet interdependent elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time

Consider the statement “I am lying.”

The statement presents the opposing nature between truth and falsehood. These contradictions exist in an absurd, interdependent loop. If I say I am lying, and I’m telling the truth, then I am lying. If I say I am lying, and I’m lying, then I’m telling the truth. Despite multiple efforts toward a logical and philosophical resolution, the statement creates a tension between truth and falsehood that never goes away—it persists over time.

The paradox of teams.

High-performing teams need individuals to give their best and distinctive efforts. Doing so often fosters competition between team members, but it also requires collaboration to prioritize the collective. Moreover, paradoxes persist as groups and teams want to grow, learn, and adapt.

Four types of paradoxes

  1. Performing paradoxes

  2. Learning paradoxes

  3. Belonging paradoxes

  4. Organizing paradoxes


Performing paradoxes


Performing paradoxes involve competing demands in our goals, outcomes, and expectations.


Learning paradoxes


Learning paradoxes create challenges for how we grow from the past to the future. These paradoxes involve tensions across time such as those between today and tomorrow, new and old, stability and change, tradition and modernization.


When we talk with organizational leaders, they often note rising demands for agility and constant adaptation. Yet great companies grow so large and structured that they are like oil tankers in the ocean; they can’t turn easily when the winds change.


Organizations need to be ambidextrous—to learn to both explore and exploit at the same time. That is, they need to embrace learning paradoxes. Rather than choose between today and tomorrow, they need to develop ways to focus on both and find the synergies. How could today’s successes support tomorrow’s growth? How could tomorrow’s innovation reenergize today’s successes? And are we able to navigate these changes while still exploiting the successes of our current world?


Belonging paradoxes


Belonging paradoxes raise questions of who we are, highlighting tensions in our roles, identities, values, and personalities. For many of us, engaging with multiple, competing identities is challenging. Work-life tensions often emerge in questions of how to allocate our time; yet at the heart of these dilemmas are identity challenges. Am I a committed organizational leader or a good parent? Am I available to others, or am I focused on my own needs?


Organizing paradoxes


Organizing paradoxes address questions of how we structure our lives and organizations. The system includes tools that shift how we think (assumptions) and how we feel (comfort) when navigating paradoxes. They further address how we approach situations by building static structures (boundaries) while enabling adaptive practices (dynamics).


Getting Caught in Vicious Cycles


We should never allow ourselves to be bullied by an “either-or.” There is often the possibility of something better than either of two given alternatives.

Mary Parker Follett


In our research, we identify three patterns of vicious cycles:

  1. Rabbit holes (intensification)

  2. Wrecking balls (overcorrection)

  3. Trench warfare (polarization).


Rabbit Holes: Intensification


Three traps fuel the vicious cycles of intensification. The ways we think (cognition), feel (emotion), and act (behavior) all advance our descent down a rabbit hole.


  1. Cognitive traps - Acting as a mental lens, our existing assumptions inform how we frame both problems and responses.

  2. Emotional traps - Our natural desire is to feel confident, certain, and secure; however, tensions raise uncertainty and insecurity.

  3. Behavioral traps - Creatures of habit, we tend to stick with existing routines rather than try new things.


Wrecking Balls: Overcorrection Seeking to break out of a deep rut of either/or thinking, we can overcorrect, reversing our either/or thinking too far in the opposite direction.


Trench Warfare: Polarization


Yet what happens when an issue arises and people fall to opposing sides, each group stuck in its own rut and then confronting one another? Trench warfare. Battles between those stuck in opposing ruts reinforce each other’s “stuckness.”


In his book The Opposable Mind, he suggests that our capacity for holding opposing ideas in our mind at the same time is a human evolutionary advantage. As he argues, Human beings, it’s well known, are distinguished from nearly every other creature by a physical feature known as the opposable thumb. Thanks to the tension we can create by opposing the thumb and finger, we can do marvelous things that no other creature can do—write, thread a needle, carve a diamond, paint a picture, guide a catheter up through an artery and unblock it.… Similarly, we were born with an opposable mind we can use to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension. We can use that tension to think our way through to a new and superior idea.


Psychologically healthy people are constantly balancing between expansion and constriction.


Paradoxes trigger deep emotions. On the one hand, tensions spark anxiety and defensiveness, which can trap us in either/or thinking. On the other hand, the unleashing of new and creative options to address tough problems can be exciting and energizing.


If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.

Maya Angelou


Research suggests that people experience increased tensions in settings with (1) faster change, (2) greater plurality, or (3) more scarcity.


The faster the pace of change, the more we experience tensions between what is and what will be. In terms of plurality, the more voices and perspectives from different people and stakeholders, the more we experience tensions between varied goals, roles, and values. And finally, the more that people experience a scarcity of resources, the more competition there will be over how the resources should be shared.


Tensions swirl all around us. Some people seek them out, purposefully surfacing tensions to enable more creativity. Others may avoid or ignore them to minimize potential conflicts.


Navigating Conflict


There is no one truth.

Many of us believe that truth is ubiquitous—that if something is true, its opposite must be false.


Sometimes we need to act our way into our beliefs, literally. To change our underlying assumptions, we need to start behaving in ways that reflect what we want to believe.


“Yes, and” reminds us that there are multiple truths and that we, therefore, do not have to simply reject someone when they challenge our assumptions.


Importantly, honouring someone else’s reality does not mean that we have to agree with it. It means that we recognize and respect their reality. We can then learn from and expand on this reality.


The next time you are in a conversation. See what happens when someone says something that might challenge your ideas. In that moment, pause and check in with what you are thinking and feeling. You might be feeling a bit threatened, even angry. You might be thinking of the defensive arguments that you would make to challenge their perspective. Instead, try responding with “Yes, and.” What if you started by truly honoring their position? Then, rather than reject it, see how you could build on it in light of your own insights. Then check back with yourself. How has this “Yes, and” informed your own mindset? Has it allowed you to see multiple perspectives? How has it changed the nature of the conversation?


Find treasure in someone else’s trash.

Moving away from Control


If we have a dichotomous mindset, we view problem solving as a search for control. Navigating paradoxes, however, requires a different approach to problem solving. Remember, paradoxes are both dynamic and persistent. They cannot be resolved, as the opposing forces remain. With a paradox mindset, we shift our approach from problem solving to coping. Coping means that we accept the uncertainty, honor the ambiguity, and find a way to move forward in the moment, knowing that we will need to revisit our decision.


Throughout the book, we use language that reinforces this notion of coping, rather than controlling. We don’t talk about resolving paradoxes but instead describe navigating, engaging with, or leveraging them. Rather than talk about minimizing or resisting tensions, we speak of accepting and embracing them.

Leaders are responsible for mobilizing a group of people toward a set of outcomes. With weighty expectations on their shoulders, people often seek control, finding ways to be assertive and bend the outcomes toward their will. However, research repeatedly finds that effectively achieving desired outcomes depends on leaders’ ability to let go of control.


Great leaders stay open to multiple shifting possibilities, accepting and living in chaos. Leadership means being able to move from the dance floor to the balcony, where leaders can better embrace and learn from the dynamic complexity. Addressing complex situations, therefore, requires leaders to be both on the balcony and on the dance floor.


“the challenge is to move back and forth between the dance floor and the balcony, making interventions, observing their impact, and then returning to the action. The goal is to come as close as you can to being in both places simultaneously, as if you had one eye looking from the dance floor and one eye looking down from the balcony, watching all the action, including your own.”

A visionary company doesn’t seek balance between short term and long term. A visionary company doesn’t simply balance idealism and profitability; it seeks to be highly idealistic and highly profitable. In short, a highly visionary company doesn’t want to blend yin and yang into a grey indistinguishable circle that is neither highly yin nor highly yang; it aims to be distinctly yin and yang; both at the same time, all the time.

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras


How To Embrace Paradox in your Organisation


  1. Link organizational tensions to a higher purpose (boundaries)

  2. Set a long-term vision that holistically and passionately links opposing poles with one another Build guardrails around paradoxical poles (boundaries)

  3. Set goals and roles, and engage stakeholders who will stand up for each pole to ensure that it is represented Diversify the stakeholders (boundaries)

  4. Work with potential competitors or adversaries

  5. Build diversity into the leadership

  6. Encourage experimentation (dynamism)

  7. Set up low-cost experiments to try out new possibilities

  8. Use language, culture, and rewards to spur low-cost experimentation

  9. Evaluate experiments before making a broader decision

  10. Be willing to shut down failures Surface the underlying paradoxes (assumptions)

  11. Name the tensions

  12. Use language to describe the paradoxical nature of the tensions

  13. Honor the discomfort (comfort)

  14. Create an environment to welcome vulnerability

  15. Invite employees to identify underlying fears, anxieties, and discomfort with uncertainty and conflict Build skills for managing conflict (comfort)

  16. Model conflict-building skills and a willingness to give and receive critical feedback

  17. Explicitly teach leaders skills for productive conflict Personalize paradoxes for employees (assumptions)

  18. Connect the competing demands with individual employees’ goals

  19. Provide training and development that fosters a paradox mindset


 

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