Leading edge organizations identify & address their dilemmas


Didier Marlier

February 05, 2022

From Disruption to Engagement

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In the “Old Economy”, Problem-Solving methodologies were a must in several business schools. We were taught to:

  1. Define clearly the problem
  2. Identify its root cause
  3. Remove the cause
  4. Observe if we had satisfactorily resolved the problem.

It worked well, perfectly combined with the “engineering mindset” and the linear thinking of the time. Once solved, a problem was behind our back and we could return to work. I gratefully applied this, for example when one of Switzerland’s most famous publisher entered into chaos after building a brand new printing plant, equipped with the latest technology and no one understood what was causing the fact it was 2-3 hours slower to get the papers out compared to the previous labour intensive method.

But, the Disruption Economy had us rapidly moving into a non-linear V.U.C.A. context. Of course, traditional problem-solving still works in simple or complicated contexts but they are a dangerous illusion in complex or chaotic situations, as Dave Snowden calls them.

Whereas problem-solving won’t get you very far, dilemma leadership will. In our 2009 Book, “Engaging Leadership”, one of us wrote:

“Dilemma can be thought of as two axis (horizontal and vertical). They appear to underline conflicting views. For example:

  • ensuring the business’ continuation whilst shaping a highly flexible organization
  • providing strong leadership whilst building ownership/responsibility amongst employees
  • having a clear vision whilst feeling at ease with ambiguity and uncertainty
  • managing for profits whilst putting people first
  • thinking long term whilst surviving the dictatorship of “the quarterly results”

Dilemma leadership can be described as:

  • Moving from “either…or” to “both…and”: it is not about choosing which axis is better but being able to understand how to make both work
  • It is recurrent: one doesn’t necessarily “solve” a dilemma. It is sometimes that keeps on coming back, for which the answers and the ingredients (a bit more of axis “x” this time, a bit more of “y” next) evolve in regard of the context
  • It addresses (not solves) two issues which seem to be conflicting. It is a very powerful way to re-engage people, previously de-energized by the either/or decision made
  • It is appropriate in today’s world of complexity and adaptation”

And I would simply add today, that it is an exceptional manner to take people out of the polarisation/exclusion/focalisation culture that grows like a cancer in civilian society by encouraging people not to see their visions as radically opposite, but as two necessary sides of the same coin.

Dilemma leadership is about:

  • Patience: Your issue won’t be solved once forever but will keep on reappearing and provoke rich discussions and a far more agile and reactive culture.
  • Exploration: A dilemma is composed of two (or more) axis. The idea is not that one of them should be chosen forever, because it is superior to the other alternatives. In fact, it should be left to those leading the dilemma to sometimes go more on the left, sometimes more on the right etc. A dilemma requests that all those taking part to it, fully understand and respect the various axis composing it.
  • Humility: Dilemmas force us to admit that, on the specific case under review, there is no black or white solution. It is a part of “Leading when I don’t know”.

Those reflections came to my mind, last week, as I had the chance to work in London with an exceptional team in charge of the fastest growing business of their organisation. We were discussing about behaviours, values and culture and realise that their shouldn’t be either/or decisions made on these but that the leaders should rather grow their ability at both/and to live and represent the right behaviour under the right circumstances.

Enjoy your leadership journey!



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