Are You Solving a Problem or Managing a Dilemma?

 Flandrin 'Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea'

Flandrin 'Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea'

An astute observer recently pointed out to me that much of my advice seems to contradict itself. This is true. On the one hand I encourage listening and empathy; on the other hand I believe in a strong authorial voice. Sometimes I advise pragmatism and diplomacy; at others I suggest tenacity and idealism. I propose sensitivity to texture and tone, alongside reduction and simplicity; I advocate doubt and scepticism, alongside confidence and conviction.

In part this is because diverse situations call for diverse forms of strategic engagement. We need different tools for different tasks. But on a more fundamental level it’s because life is inherently confusing; people are cryptic; business is complex. The human condition is a paradox.

As strategists we often think of ourselves as problem solvers. We figure out the puzzle, crack the code, answer the question - and move on. But this may sometimes be an unhelpful characterisation of the task in hand. And in the process we may risk misunderstanding our Clients’ and our consumers’ concerns.

Not all the challenges we face in life and business are problems that can be solved. Not all the questions have right and wrong answers.

Often we are confronted with dilemmas: issues that are complex and conflicted; the opposing tensions between fundamental needs and ongoing desires, between different drives and motivations; the varying interests of individuals and groups.

Dilemmas are issues that won’t go away. They can’t be solved. They can only be managed.

In ordinary life most people have to deal with the conflicting needs of children and parents; with the contrary ambitions of partners within a relationship; with the ongoing tensions between work and life, health and happiness, head and heart. We all have to balance the pressures of the short and long term, of individual and collective good.

As business leaders we may have to consider the contrary pressures of the commercial and the reputational; the conflicting rights of individual employees; the tension between freedom and responsibility within teams; the balance between the incompatible needs of different disciplines.

These are not problems that can be solved; questions that can be answered. They are complex, enduring dilemmas that must be carefully calibrated; and responded to with subtlety and nuance.

Perhaps the paradox at the heart of the human condition explains why so many popular dictums contradict each other. Should we strike while the iron is hot, or keep our powder dry? Do birds of a feather flock together, or do opposites attract? Are two heads better than one, or do too many cooks spoil the broth?

It may also be why many of the aphorisms we turn to in business embrace ambiguity: we ‘think global and act local;’ we have ‘freedom within a framework;' we 'speak softly and carry a big stick.'

In the world of commercial creativity it has often been said that our fundamental task is to ‘manage tensions’: between the rational and the emotional; between behaviour and belief; between the creative and commercial; between cost, speed and quality; between art and science.

So let’s not suggest that our brand or business has all the answers, when sometimes there are no answers to be had. And let’s not promise to solve a problem, when the best we can do is manage a dilemma.

I’ll probably carry on giving conflicting advice - confident in the conviction that successful leaders employ tools, training and tips alongside intuition, instinct and judgement. This is the skill and craft of leadership.

Great leaders may not solve every problem; but they will ensure that every dilemma is better managed.

No. 128