Navigating paradoxical tensions through both/and thinking

By Faye Miller

Faye Miller (biography)

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:

  1. Identifying paradoxical tensions;
  2. Moving from either/or to both/and thinking; and
  3. 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.

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.

26 thoughts on “Navigating paradoxical tensions through both/and thinking”

  1. Hi! I had experience of this today. Someone suggested Lean principle build -> measure -> learn should be changed to learn -> build -> measure. The thinking behind made sense.. There was a long discussion with many perspectives. Three solutions emerged: A Change according to initial idea. B Do not change but interpret the term build more broadly. C introduce a new word in front of build, making the principle: think -> build -> measure -> learn. Personally I feel these three solution approaches represent a move from either / or to both / and. Tuomas

  2. Beautiful reflection and contribution to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. Thank you. We do need to move towards “and/collaborative” mindsets. In a review of European funds for research we also sought to invite the combination of social sciences, humanities and the arts with the dominant (95%) natural sciences and STEM (Bina et al 2017, The Future Imagined 10.1016/j.futures.2016.05.009). Yet change is slow. Possibly dangerously slow?

    • Thank you Olivia. Wow, what a fascinating study linking creative foresight methods to science and technology policy! As someone involved in both research and creative writing/filmmaking – I love this and hope to see more of this type of work done! I think this approach could also be very useful for communicating science to non-academic audiences.

  3. Thank you Faye Miller for this input. Thank you Colleen Knechtel for giving a link to our work about collaborating and doing research and development work with people with intellectual disabilities.

    Both/and, either/or and even neither/nor are all constantly challenging our work. The tensions are endless. Even language is challenging us as it does not really represent the reality we stand in well enough. One of our researchers cannot read or write and even struggles with verbal communication. We have tried to identify values that can give us something similar to firm ground to stand on in our work both theoretically and practically. We experience that when those who the research and development work concerns are involved in real collaboration, things emerge that none of us had thought of in advance. We have struggled with questions like: «Can people with severe intellectual disability be researchers?» «Can the duty of confidentiality sometimes be an excuse for not giving credit to those who actually do the development work?» «What is a good life?» «What is a meaningful day?».

    One important source of inspiration is Kurt Lewin and how he claims that the creation of knowledge can be understood as the discoveries that empower the people the research concerns. It can be identified by how they, through the research and development work, are able to handle their situation better and handle the social relations they are a part of better. When we look for this we can make specific claims on the creation of knowledge for those involved. This is far from relative or naively subjective. We often use the following three criteria for quality assessment in our research: Is the research recognizable for those it concerns? Does in work in real life practical situations? Does it benefit long term for a better life between the people it concerns?

    • Thank you for your thoughtful contribution Kjartan. In an evolving knowledge-technology society, action research, also known as participatory community-based research, or simply community-based research (CBR), is such an important and valuable research approach for knowledge creation to improve the lives of individuals in communities, ultimately bringing humanity into focus.

  4. Dear Faye and all, wonderful contributions and questions! This could be such an interesting collective reflection to explore – in TD learning and research, what have been the paradoxes encountered, how have they been recognised and discussed, and overcome? What skills and characteristics do people have that enables them to move beyond either/or thinking?

    Colleen, great links about education. It also reminds me of the incredible work of Hawkesbury Agricultural College, in the 1980’s and 90’s in Australia. The staff, realising that either/or thinking is embedded in the dominant paradigm, designed their 3 year course to engage students in increasingly challenging systemic and transdisciplinary challenges. Inspired by the work of William Perry and Marcia Salner (who studied adult and epistemological development), the staff sought to move students largely from either/or dualist perceiving and thinking to wholistic, relational and paradoxical thinking. Their work, e.g. Richard Bawden, Ray Ison and many others, is definitely worth reading!

    There other interesting philosophical sources from the transdisciplinary fields are Edgar Morin, Basarab Nicolescu and Gregory Bateson. They go into great detail about various ways to overcome dualistic thinking, although they have different and complementary approaches. Each of them also ask – what is the relationship between either/or thinking AND both/and thinking? 🙂

    • Thank you Katie for your thoughts and great questions! I would be very interested in developing a collective reflection using the many cases and theorists you’ve mentioned on paradoxes in TD research and education. It would make a very useful teaching resource. I agree, the skill sets and mindsets required to move between Either/Or to Both/And is a critical question for educators.

  5. Faye, Your thoughts are inspiring for work around social inclusion and diverse ways of knowing (knowledge creation).

    The quote: “Paradoxical thinking is spurred by recognizing a dilemma in which no choice can resolve the tension because opposing solutions are needed and interwoven” really resonated with me. Why not explore both ideas and find different solutions instead of choosing one and leaving the other behind? Linear thinking will not solve today’s complex problems.

    This makes me think of Einstein’s quote that I have been pondering recently:

    “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”

    Here is a link that supports this work: [Moderator note: the previous link was updated on 8 Feb 2023 from: [www]]

    In her article, Why we should stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, SINEAD BOVELL, SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
    PUBLISHED AUGUST 11, 2020 said:

    “Technology will shape every single job that exists today. Studies show that technology may also replace up to 800 million of those jobs all together. Therefore, technology will likely augment or even replace the jobs associated with whatever career aspirations a primary schooler may have by the time they enter the work force. Linear career paths, as we once knew them, will become a thing of the past. According to the Foundation for Young Australians, young people in school today are expected to have 17 jobs across five careers in their lifetimes. This has implications in North America – the same study was cited in leading U.S. future of work strategist Heather E. McGowan’s book, The Adaptation Advantage. In fact, 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.
    Because of this, we need to prepare them for a complex and changing world and a life of continuous learning. Therefore, we should not impose on our youth the socially constructed belief that one’s career identity is static and anchored to a singular profession. Instead, we need to encourage children to explore what they love to do, figure out what they love to learn, and think of problems they would love to solve.
    This is what this could look like in practice:
    • Repositioning our education systems around experiential learning, problem-solving, and learning how to learn;
    • Prioritizing digital literacy;
    • Teaching soft skills such as emotional intelligence and adaptability; and
    • Introducing age-appropriate real world problems during play and encouraging children to use what they have learned in school and at home, in combination with their imaginations, to solve them”.
    She finishes here insightful article in this way:

    It’s impossible to predict how the technological revolution will unfold, including the jobs and industries that have yet to be invented. We can, however, support our youth to thrive in this complex and changing future by encouraging them to lean into their curiosities, explore their passions, and use what they are naturally endowed with: an imagination.

    Sinead is another brilliant mind whose thinking adds depth to this dialogue. Thank you Faye for this opportunity to think about this topic more deeply. Everyone of us has a contribution to make in this complex world we live in.

    Have you seen these articles? They too are certainly inspiring:

    [dead link removed by moderator 12/4/23]

    And this:

    Definitely both/and thinking here!


    • Thank you Colleen for sharing all of these wonderful resources! It’s really interesting to think about how paradoxes as a method can empower social inclusion and diversity of voices. I agree Sinead Bovell’s work emphasises the role of non-linear thought patterns for future career learning.

  6. PMI (Plus, Minus, Interesting) Thinking can also help. When thinking about complex and often paradoxical issues, situations and problems, it is useful to think about not only the positives and minuses but also the interesting: the things that are not necessarily good or bad but instead novel and intriguing. It is from this focus that creativity and innovation can spring. Try triple thinking rather than binary thinking. Thanks for your post, Faye.

    • Thanks Heiner, yes I think paradox thinking and related models like PMI as suggested by Charles have a lot of potential for making more “great leaps forward”! These mindsets and associated metaphors (and educating people to understand and use them effectively) are becoming essential for inclusively navigating and solving our problems.


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