By Faye Miller
How can the many paradoxical tensions that arise in transdisciplinary projects be effectively navigated?
My recent research into how to produce shared understanding for digital and social innovation identifies three key tenets for navigating paradoxes as an emerging transdisciplinary method:
- Identifying paradoxical tensions;
- Moving from either/or to both/and thinking; and
- Working through paradoxes to workable certainty or negotiated understanding.
Identifying paradoxical tensions
A paradox involves contradictory-yet-interrelated elements that exist simultaneously, which morph, shift and persist over time. Increasing our focus on paradoxes fosters the development of creative and innovative mindsets encouraging transdisciplinary researchers to employ both logic and intuition in their approaches.
Paradoxical tensions present the potential:
- for divides to flare up, which is often counterproductive, or
- to bridge those divides.
This prompts paradoxical tensions to be reframed as critical ‘opportunity spaces’ – advantageous spots to innovate and build the starting point for developing fresh ideas.
Some examples of paradoxical tensions and opposing dualities that can arise from or co-exist in transdisciplinary projects (and in life) include: wave/particle, holism/reductionism, formal/informal, self/others, intellectual/sensual, collaboration/competition, academic/practitioner, intention/interpretation.
Expanding on the reframing of paradoxical tensions, Stacey (2007: 15) suggests;
“The idea that, for success, paradoxes must be resolved, and that the tension they cause must be released, is part of the paradigm that equates success with the dynamics of stability, regularity and predictability. The notion that paradoxes can never be resolved, only lived with, leads to a view of organisational dynamics couched in terms of continuing tension-generating behaviour patterns that are both regular and irregular, both stable and unstable and both predictable and unpredictable, all at the same time, but which lead to creative novelty.”
Moving from either/or to both/and thinking
Both/and thinking is opposite to either/or thinking. The ‘black or white’ approach of either/or thinking is commonly used when making quick decisions between two or more competing options in isolation from each other, which can result in binary oppositions, polarities and divisions. Instead both/and thinking focuses on navigating the gray areas and envisioning how conflicting elements might co-exist. Both/and is a collaborative mindset which takes a long-term view that validates different perspectives.
Working through paradoxes to workable certainty or negotiated understanding
In being aware of paradoxical tensions, we navigate through both/and thinking toward workable certainty and creative actions. Once the paradoxical dilemma has been recognized, this leads to discovering the link through both/and thinking. As Lüscher and Lewis (2008, p. 229) point out:
“Paradoxical thinking is spurred by recognizing a dilemma in which no choice can resolve the tension because opposing solutions are needed and interwoven.”
For example, in thinking about preparing people for future careers, decision makers often prioritize technical solutions to technical problems to justify making a choice between accessible university courses in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or the humanities and social sciences. As technical problems are often also human problems, it is critically important to understand the human, and impacts of technology on humanity, to navigate the problem. As future careers will require advanced skills and knowledge gained from both technology and the humanities fields, public policy decisions need to reflect a negotiated understanding between STEM and humanities and social sciences, at both organizational and societal levels.
With these three key tenets synthesized from the emerging literature on navigating paradox in mind, we need to think further on the question: How can focusing on paradoxes or paradoxical tensions as a transdisciplinary method develop shared understanding?
I argue that engaging paradox enables movement. The contradictory and ambiguous synergy can springboard social change agents into new and unique insights into the divides that need bridging, and holistic consideration of multiple possible futures that lead on from these gaps. What do you think? What has your experience been with paradox and “both/and” thinking?
To find out more:
Miller, F. (2020). Producing Shared Understanding for Digital and Social Innovation: Bridging Divides With Transdisciplinary Information Experience Concepts and Methods. Palgrave Macmillan: Singapore. https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9789811573712
Lüscher, L. S. and Lewis, M. W. (2008). Organizational change and managerial sensemaking: Working through paradox. Academy of Management Journal, 51, 2: 221-240.
Stacey, R. D. (2007). Strategic management and organisational dynamics: The challenge of complexity to ways of thinking about organisations. Pearson Education: Harlow, United Kingdom.
Biography: Faye Miller PhD is Director of Human Constellation, a research and career development consultancy. Her research focuses on transdisciplinary information experience design concepts and methods for digital social innovation. Her work is informed by more than a decade of experience in social media, documentary filmmaking, higher education, research services and public policy.