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How To Embrace Creative Tensions To Solve Tough Problems


If you struggle with these paradoxes:

  • How can I express my individuality and be a team player?
  • How do I balance work and life?
  • How can I take care of myself while supporting others?
  • How can I manage the core business while innovating for the future?

then the new book, Both/And Thinking, by authors Wendy Smith and Marianne Lewis, is for you. It will teach you how to navigate these types of paradoxes more effectively.


“When making a decision, we often find ourselves stuck between choosing one option over another, creating a vicious cycle that limits our capabilities and creates consistent tension,” explain the authors. “But there is a better way.”


As the book explains, that better way is both/and thinking versus traditional either/or thinking. This new way of thinking means that instead of choosing between alternative poles of paradox, you figure out how to engage both poles simultaneously. In other words, how to accommodate competing demands over time for a more sustainable solution.


“As we are faced with dilemmas – choices between seemingly opposing alternatives – we feel compelled to make a decision to feel a sense of control and comfort. These choices are filled with paradoxes – interdependent, persistent contradictions that lurk within each dilemma.


We must be aware of these everlasting paradoxes if we hope to effectively navigate through our most difficult decisions. While traditional either/or thinking has its benefits, many of the choices we face – the ones causing the most tension – can only truly be overcome using both/and thinking,” say Smith and Lewis.


Furthermore, Smith and Lewis teach that in bringing to light the existence of paradox in each dilemma, our minds become open to the possibility for more as we begin to deconstruct the dichotomy between one choice or another and we begin to apply ourselves towards making more creative, flexible, and impactful decisions.


 Wendy K. Smith



Marianne W. Lewis


Today, the authors answer this question for us:


Question: What are the couple best next steps for a workplace leader to take after reading your book?


Smith and Lewis: We’ve found that effectively engaging both/and thinking involves using four sets of tools. Think ABCD – Assumptions, Boundaries, Comfort and Dynamics. Paul Polman was an early study. As CEO of Unilever, he implemented the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan to achieve a bold social and environmental goal while doubling profits. His work still inspires us and helps bring the Paradox System to life:


Assumptionschange the question. Polman didn't ask whether to seek profit or social responsibility. Instead, he sought to double profits while at the same time cutting the firm's environmental impact in half. Changing the question invites us to think more creatively about possible answers.


Boundaries - separate and connect. Separating opposing demands ensures that we pay attention to both. Connecting involves finding synergies and integration. Polman had distinct metrics, targets, and roles to separate  financial and social targets and track each. He also connected to a higher vision that integrated both. In an interview with Polman, he told us - don't tell me we can't do both, Unilever serves 2 billion consumers a day, we must find a way to foster sustainable living through business.


Comfort - find comfort in the discomfort. Navigating tensions can raise uncertainty and defensiveness. Leaders, have to find ways to honor the discomfort, but not let it stand in the way of finding better outcomes. Polman often surveyed his leaders, asking them to surface and recognize the tensions, rather than avoiding them.


Dynamics stay flexible. Navigating paradoxes involves ongoing change and experimentation. Doing so involves the humility and confidence keeps us pushing for new possibilities. Polman was constantly trying out new approaches with Unilever - entering into bold partnerships with competitors and watchdog organizations, shifting his senior leaders and board members to ensure diversity of thoughts and perspectives, getting rid of quarterly reporting to the analysts to avoid short term decision making. If these initiatives worked, he stuck with them. If not, he moved on and tried something else.


One of my favorite sections of the book is the chapter on Organizational Leadership, where the authors recommend leaders:

  • Link organizational tensions to a higher purpose
  • Build guardrails around paradoxical poles
  • Diversity the stakeholders
  • Encourage experimentation
  • Surface the underlying paradoxes
  • Honor the discomfort
  • Build skills for managing conflict
  • Personalize paradoxes for employees 

Lastly, be sure to check out the final part of the book where you can take your personalized Paradox Mindset Inventory to score yourself on how well you engage competing demands – how you experience tensions and the mindset you adopt as you engage these tensions.


Thank you to the book’s publisher for sending me an advance copy of the book.


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