Impossibly Both: Embracing Wickedness and Paradox to Succeed in Complexity

“How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” (Niels Bohr)

When times are really tough, our individual minds and souls may be freer to hear and feel new possibilities. But under stress organizations typically revert to seeing decisions as binary – we have to choose between this or that. By reducing our options and what we can test, this mindset makes it nearly impossible to successfully navigate all the complexity around us now.

Instead of falling into the trap of the binary, we must passionately seek out multiplicity and paradox. Paradoxes – when two things stand in logical contradiction to each other, yet both are considered simultaneously true – are tremendously useful devices. They push us beyond the limits of artificial bi-polar thinking and into the rich organic truths of complexity.

One approach to paradox we’ve found particularly helpful is to work on Wicked Questions. What opposing-yet-complementary goals do you need to pursue at the same time in order to respond successfully to your complex challenge? Can you imagine a radical vision for success that embraces and transforms both sides of the question?

Wicked problems are often ill-defined (there is no prescribed way forward), involve stakeholders with different perspectives, and have no “right” or “optimal” solution. Thus, wicked problems cannot be solved by the application of standard (or known) methods; they demand creative, divergent solutions. Complex challenges are typically wicked problems.

Wicked Questions capture the central underlying tension that stands at the core of a wicked problem: the tension between equally necessary – but apparently irreconcilable – goals, each of which must be achieved for progress to be made. The existence of this tension beneath the surface of a complex challenge is one test of it being genuinely complex. The built-in paradox demands that we not settle for one or other of the horns of the dilemma, but rather search for an imaginative reframing of the problem that moves us beyond the tension toward a new understanding of its potential.

You can use the formulation of Wicked Questions as a powerful device to prompt the discovery of a Radical New Vision of success in response to your complex challenge. Ask your group, in pairs or trios, to come up with statements that are genuinely Wicked. They can use the simple Worksheet here. But watch out! It’s not so easy to capture deep wickedness……. This statement, for instance:

How can we maintain our artistic standards, while at the same time we develop new production approaches and venues?

….is not really wicked. There’s no intrinsic tension between these two goals. You could in fact achieve both separately (though it’s not easy!). This one, however:

How can we advance our own unique programmatic point-of-view, while at the same time we embrace the community’s multiple perspectives?

….is decidedly wicked. It will require us to find a way to shift our collective mindset, to move from considering these two goals as opposing to a vision that integrates them in a newly imagined way.

Capture the output from your small groups and use the full group to help make the questions more wicked. It will be a lively conversation! You can use it as a springboard for moving on to articulating a Radical New Vision of success.

Click here to download the Wicked Questions Worksheet

ArtsFwd is an online community of arts and culture leaders committed to doing things differently in their organizations in order to stay relevant and vital in a changing world.