Thriving in the Face of Contradiction

    To succeed like LEGO, we must embrace paradoxical thinking and be willing to live in tension. This means shifting from either/or to both/and thinking, trusting while verifying, and being courageous and humble. Embrace creative tensions to solve tough problems.

    enOctober 17, 2022

    About this Episode

    We all face tough decisions in life, whether we're juggling the demands of work and family or deciding whether to take a new job. These situations often feel like either/or choices.  But psychologist Wendy Smith says this binary way of confronting dilemmas contains a trap.  She offers a different way to think about difficult choices, one that opens up unexpected possibilities. 

    Did you catch our recent episode about why we sometimes confess to  things we didn't do? You can find it  here. And if you like our work, please consider a financial contribution to help us make many more episodes like this one. 

    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Sometimes, decision-making can be difficult, but it's important to remember that taking risks can lead to unexpected success. Analyzing past decisions can improve clarity and help us make better choices for our personal and professional lives.
    • Companies need to evolve and invest in new technologies to stay relevant in a rapidly changing market. Past success is no guarantee of future success; complacency can lead to failure.
    • Adopting a both/and mindset, which combines the best of existing and new worlds, can spark innovation and help us thrive in times of change. Avoid the trap of binary thinking and embrace creative adaptation.
    • Binary thinking forces us into limited perspectives, breeds negative conflict and inhibits creativity. Recognizing this cognitive mechanism and actively seeking out alternative perspectives can lead to collaboration and innovation.
    • Making decisions based on black-and-white thinking can lead to disastrous consequences, both in personal and professional life. To steer clear of such pitfalls, one must strive for balanced and nuanced decision-making, avoiding extremities and the traps that come with it.
    • Don't limit yourself to a binary perspective. Embrace the complexity of situations and find a middle ground that works for you. Avoid extremes and remember that nuanced solutions can lead to deeper truths.
    • To overcome binary thinking, leaders should view paradoxes as interdependent and embrace multiple truths for more effective decision-making. A broader and longer-term perspective is crucial for seeing the overarching picture and differing perspectives.
    • When faced with paradoxes, listen to different perspectives and look at the bigger picture. Use the approaches of creative integration and tightrope walking to find solutions and embrace the discomfort of not being able to resolve them perfectly in one direction or the other.
    • When making decisions, balancing between two options allows for flexibility and subtlety, avoiding extreme swings. It's crucial to consider choices individually and reevaluate them over time to avoid potential pitfalls like that seen in the history of LEGO's success.
    • LEGO's disciplined innovation approach, balancing quality with reduced costs, helped them recover from near-bankruptcy and created new opportunities. Balancing innovation with pragmatism is crucial for success in a constantly evolving market.
    • To succeed like LEGO, we must embrace paradoxical thinking and be willing to live in tension. This means shifting from either/or to both/and thinking, trusting while verifying, and being courageous and humble. Embrace creative tensions to solve tough problems.
    • Small acts of kindness can have a massive impact on someone's life. We have the power to be a source of hope and positivity in the world, and our actions, no matter how small, can make a significant difference.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    The Power of Decision-Making and Risk-Taking

    In the sci-fi film, The Matrix, the character Morpheus gives Neo a choice that is reflective of our daily lives - make a decision and face the consequences, or remain in the comfort of our current state. Psychologist Wendy Smith explains that dilemmas like these can make us feel pulled in two directions, despite knowing that both come with a possible loss. However, the story of American scientist Edwin Land shows us that sometimes taking the risk can lead to unexpected and immense success. By developing the instant camera, Land's company, Polaroid, became a market leader and pioneer in the Razor and Blade business model. By analyzing our past decisions and their outcomes, Smith suggests we can improve the clarity of our decision-making process, and ultimately, make better choices for our personal and professional lives.

    Polaroid's Failure to Innovate in the Digital Age

    Polaroid's razor and blade business model of selling cheap cameras to make profits on expensive film worked well in the analog era, but they failed to adapt to the digital imaging wave which rendered film obsolete. Their focus on engineering and R&D and initial investment in digital imaging could have positioned them well, but they were stuck in their existing strategy and failed to innovate. This serves as a cautionary tale for companies to not become complacent with their past success, and instead constantly adapt to changing market demands and invest in future technologies.

    The Pitfalls of Either/Or Thinking: Lessons from Polaroid’s Downfall

    Polaroid’s downfall is a prime example of market leaders failing due to their rigid commitment to existing worlds. The binary either/or thinking of focusing on the past or the future is limiting and detrimental. To solve dilemmas, we must embrace a both/and mindset that combines the best of both worlds. This requires a creative and adaptable perspective that can transition from the existing world to the new world. The trap of either/or thinking can lead us down a path of vicious cycles, while a both/and mindset can spark innovation and help us thrive in times of change.

    The Pitfalls of Binary Thinking

    Binary thinking, which simplifies the world into an either/or choice, can lead to limited perspectives and negative conflict. This is because our minds gravitate towards this model due to our need for a quick decision to minimize discomfort and uncertainty. Once we make a choice, we become invested in it and are pressured to be consistent with that choice over time. This can lead to us being stuck in a certain way of thinking and ignoring other perspectives and types of information. The consequences of binary thinking are evident on a national and global scale. It is important to recognize this cognitive mechanism and actively seek out alternative perspectives to foster creativity and collaboration.

    The Dangers of Binary Thinking and the Wrecking Ball Phenomenon.

    Binary thinking, intensification, and the Wrecking Ball Phenomenon can lead individuals, companies, and nations to make terrible decisions. The US invasion of Iraq is a prime example of how binary thinking can lead to confirmation bias and escalation of commitment. Once committed, it becomes emotionally and pragmatically difficult to change course, and individuals may go down the rabbit hole. The Wrecking Ball Phenomenon occurs when reality eventually smacks them in the face, and individuals swing all the way to the other side, overcorrecting and wrecking everything in their path. To avoid these pitfalls, individuals, companies, and nations should strive for balanced and nuanced decision-making, avoiding binary thinking and the traps that come with it.

    Escaping the Either/Or Trap

    It's easy to fall into the trap of either/or thinking, but there's often more than one truth to a situation. Wendy Smith's experience studying Talmud showed her that conflicting perspectives can lead to a deeper truth. This applies to parenting, work-life balance, and other aspects of life where we swing between extremes. The key is finding a middle ground that works for us. Overemphasizing discipline or permissiveness can lead to chaos. It's important to recognize that complex situations often require nuanced solutions, and that the opposite of a great truth can sometimes be another great truth. It's possible to escape the either/or trap without succumbing to indecision.

    Embracing Paradoxes for Open-Minded Thinking

    Paradoxical ideas often present themselves as binary choices that are in conflict with one another but are actually interdependent. By looking deeper into these paradoxes, they can introduce a different way of thinking about a problem. Leaders can do this by getting up on the balcony, taking a broader and longer-term perspective, and seeing the overarching picture and differing perspectives. Paradox accommodates multiple and even contradictory truths, which can lead to more open-minded thinking and decision-making.

    Approaches to Engage with Paradoxes

    When encountering a paradox, it is important to listen to different perspectives and understand the bigger picture instead of getting stuck in one point of view. Wendy Smith suggests two approaches to engage with paradox - creative integration and tightrope walking. Creative integration involves finding a solution that accommodates both sides of competing demands and juxtaposing opposing ideas to come up with a brilliant masterpiece, as geniuses like Mozart, Picasso, and Einstein did. Tightrope walking involves making subtle tweaks over time that reinforce and benefit both existing products and innovation, while keeping focused on a goal but never completely balanced. Paradoxes may generate tension, but it is important to embrace the discomfort of not being able to resolve them perfectly in one direction or the other.

    The Benefits of Balancing Between Two Options

    Balancing between two options using a tightrope approach allows us to make subtle adjustments and avoid the wrecking ball approach of swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other. This approach is useful in personal and professional decision-making when faced with multiple options. It's important to consider each choice individually and build a portfolio of choices over time. When faced with a dilemma, it's necessary to make a unitary decision, but it's crucial to constantly reevaluate and consider alternative perspectives. LEGO's success and subsequent downfall serves as a reminder that success can lead to failure if models and patterns are not adapted for the future.

    How LEGO Balanced Innovation with Pragmatism to Succeed

    LEGO's example shows the consequences of resisting change and overcorrecting in innovation. Polaroid and LEGO both faced disruptions in their markets, but while Polaroid failed to adapt, LEGO initially overcorrected and spiraled towards bankruptcy. The new leadership team recognized the need for innovation but imposed boundaries to prevent excessive costs. They focused on disciplined innovation by reducing their offerings to maintain quality while decreasing costs. This approach helped the company recover and created new opportunities. This example demonstrates the importance of balancing innovation with pragmatism to keep up with the market.

    LEGO's Both/And Approach: Embracing Paradoxes for Success

    LEGO's success story is an example of embracing paradoxical thinking and living in tension. They shifted their binary thinking mindset to a both/and approach, integrating paradoxes in their products, market, leadership, and culture. This approach emphasizes the importance of leading and enabling space for others, trusting while verifying, and being courageous and humble. Wendy Smith, the author of Both/And Thinking, highlights the emotional and ongoing practice of embracing creative tensions. We must constantly recognize the discomfort, work through it, and find comfort in that discomfort. This approach can help us solve our toughest problems by changing our either/or questions to how can we do one and the other?

    The Power of Small Gestures to Bring Hope and Goodness

    In the face of adversity, strangers can become a source of hope and goodness. Walter's journey through the desert with Modesto showed him that small gestures can have a monumental impact on someone's life. Modesto's willingness to carry Walter for hours and encourage him throughout the journey gave Walter the hope and determination to make it to his destination. This inspiring story reminds us that we have the power to be a channel of goodness to the world and that our actions, no matter how small, can make a significant difference in someone's life.

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