In the past three months, I’ve been to China twice, each time working with different Fortune Global 500 companies that are all wrestling with the same challenges: changing market conditions, accelerating competition, and the tensions inherent in trying to maintain local connectedness while ensuring global reach.
In a world of increasing volatility and change, more organizational agility is needed. This puts tremendous pressure on HR leaders and professionals who want to create business value – they are increasingly asked to maximize ideas and outcomes that are inherently in opposition with each other.
Some examples that HR leaders and professionals must effectively tackle include the following:
- Achieving short-term results and long-term growth
- Improving customer service with reduced budgets
- Building collaborative teams and having individual accountability
- Increasing speed to market and quality
- Enhancing local relevance/connectedness and driving global brand unity
- Doing more with less
The CHROs and HR leaders at the multinational corporations operating in China that I work with recognize that their HR professionals and business partners need help navigating these paradoxes and managing these tensions effectively. A new mindset and skillset is needed. The changing business environment requires it and demand is high. These CHROs are working to build the supply side so that HR is better positioned to create real business impact now.
In the seventh round of our global HR Competency Study (HRCS), two new interesting themes emerged:
- HR professionals who “navigate paradox” have the highest impact on business results.
- Navigating paradox is not done well by HR.
Effective paradox navigators tackle conflict head on and help their business leaders do the same. They shift from the traditional mindset of “either/or” logic to one of “and/also.” These professionals focus on managing tensions that will unleash creativity and new insights.
Seem impossible? You’re not alone. To help you get started, here are four simple steps to strengthen your ability to navigate paradox and position your business for success:
Clarify the poles
Most business strategies fail in implementation because of unresolved paradoxes. These paradoxes manifest themselves in seemingly contradictory or competing poles. For example, a leader may insist that the organization needs to “do more with less”. Another may declare that the strategy is to “deliver short-term results and long-term growth” or “become a leader in innovation” while insisting on tight top-down controls and low tolerance for failure.
Effective HR business partners will recognize these paradoxes and help their business leaders clarify the poles. What do we mean by “do more with less?” What short-term results are most important? How will we measure them? What does long-term growth look like? Where do we need to innovate? How do we create space for and encourage experimentation?
Average leaders ignore one pole. Poor leaders swing back and forth or demand both. Great leaders see the inherent tension in both poles and bring the right people together to collaboratively clarify and address them.
Define the best alternative outcome
Once the poles are clarified and we know what we’re trying to achieve, we work through a series of divergent and convergent processes to define the best alternative outcome. A useful tool is illustrated in the matrix below. This matrix helps to further clarify the poles where needed and, more importantly, provides the basis for divergent and convergent discussions to determine how best to move from current state to desired future state.
In this example, the strategy is to “achieve 20% EBIT while investing in long-term growth.” For each pole (light blue), the leader and team further clarify the poles by defining degrees of success (dark blue). Next, they identify where they are today and where they want to get in the desired future state (grey blocks). Spending enough time on this step helps the team align to define the best alternative outcome collectively.
See others’ point of view to find common ground
The tool outlined in Step 2 helps teams see points of tension and begin unraveling paradox in a productive way. They are able to identify potential trade-offs. Effective leaders help the group converge (focus) using simple questions and then diverge (expand) to consider different options and viewpoints. They strive for integration, avoiding “either/or” answers opting for “and/also” solutions instead.
They ask questions like “where do we agree?” and “where do we disagree?” They listen.
In essence, good leaders and HR business partners lead through a series of divergent and convergent cycles to see other’s point of view and find common ground. This allows the group to align on the best alternative outcome and prepare to take first steps.
Take the first steps
Built on the strong foundation created in the first three points above, these first steps should be easy to initiate. Outline specific first steps – things the leaders and teams will do in the next 3 days, 3 weeks, and 3 months – to demonstrate progress and maintain clarity. Sometimes these first steps will include two steps forward and one step backward. Be consistent and help your leaders do the same by adjusting operating mechanisms, measures, and incentives to reinforce the desired future state. Take a whole-systems view to enable and sustain the desired change.
Paradox matters. It’s inherent in day-to-day and organizational life. Effective leaders embrace this fact and assemble the right stakeholder team to clarify and address paradox head on. In HR, paradox navigation skills are the largest predictor of business impact. As HR builds this skillset, it will be better positioned to drive business results by helping leaders clarify the poles of paradox, define the best alternative outcomes, see other’s point of view to find common ground, and take the first steps towards the desired future state.
If you’d like to learn more about how The RBL Group prepares HR professionals to navigate paradox, click here.