The Paradox Principles:
How High-Performance Companies Manage Chaos, Complexity, and Contradiction to Achieve Superior Results

Price Waterhouse Change Integration Team (Irwin, 1996)

A recent marketing gambit among business book publishers is the inclusion of “chaos” or “complexity” in the title. This seems to have two aims. First, potential buyers will believe the book will help them get a handle on their own organizational “chaos” and “complexity.” In this vein, in 1993 on a visit to Israel, I was startled to see Hebrew translations of Jim Gleick’s book Chaos: Making of a New Science displayed on news kiosks next to felafel stands! Surely, it was the turbulent connotations of the term “chaos” that inspired this ubiquitous presence and not the technical meanings of sensitive dependence on initial conditions and the like.

The second aim of including “chaos” and “complex” in a book’s title is to entice would-be buyers who have heard, however dimly, of chaos or complexity theories, and who then assume that the book will be providing the most state-of-the-art insights into their organizations from the vantage point of these sexy new sciences. The buyer in this case should be forewarned that the authors of The Paradox Principles claim no fealty to the sciences of complexity. It might, therefore, seem unfair to assess this book as if it did. Yet, since the terms “chaos” and “complex” were put in the title and since, much of what the book asserts about organizational change is, in my opinion, antithetical to findings from the study of complex systems, I think it is justifiable to review it from that perspective.

The “paradox” of The Paradox Principles emanates from Charles Handy’s book The Age of Paradox and is used by The Price Waterhouse team to refer to the attainment of high-level performance through the balancing of conflicting demands. To this end, the authors employ the symbol of a gyroscope to depict a “marvelous synthesis of competing forces.” A gyroscope does indeed seem an apt image for its capacity of being a steady axis of purpose in the face of constantly shifting environmental conditions. The suggestions for dealing with organizational paradox are gleaned from research conducted by the senior consulting partners of Price Waterhouse, who interviewed executives from multinational corporations concerning the challenges they faced. These interviews were then analyzed and supplemented with case studies, and then the researchers did “reality checking” by conducting a survey of employees from 200 business organizations.

The Paradox Principles discusses five “principles” for managing paradox:

  1. Positive change requires significant stability.
  2. To build an enterprise focus on the individual.
  3. Focus directly on culture, indirectly.
  4. True empowerment requires forceful leadership.
  5. To build you must tear down.

Each principle is stated paradoxically, since each is thought to be an aid in the management of organizational paradoxes. It seems to me, however, that from the perspective of complexity theory, four out of five of these principles are problematic, namely principles 1, 2, 4, and 5, while principle 3 could be given a complexity spin.

The authors develop the first principle by claiming that: “Rampant change in the absence of key elements of stability is chaos” (p. 26). “Chaos” is here presumably being used in its traditional meaning of disorder or commotion, i.e., something negative from the point of a view of management control. In the face of such “chaos” the authors recommend a return and adherence to such reliable sources of stability as culture, community, mission, vision, strategy and core competencies.

What I don’t grasp is why stability in culture, community, mission, vision, strategy and core competencies is not precisely what may be keeping corporations from becoming adaptable to unpredictable changes in the business environment? In fact, technically, in a complex system, deep-rooted change can be conceptualized as a bifurcation or shift in attactors, and this comes about from instability, not stability. A stable system is, by definition, inured to internal fluctuations or external perturbations (see Nicolis and Prigogine, 1989). A stable system, strictly speaking, couldn’t be adaptive because it couldn’t respond to changes in its environment that show up as fluctuations or perturbations. It is only when a system is unstable, i.e., is responsive to fluctuations and perturbations, that it can change and adapt to changes in its environment. Without this type of instability, how could innovations possibly even occur and take root? Leadership, then, in a complex system that needs to undergo sig-nificant change must somehow allow or generate the necessary instability so that transformation can occur. But this also means that leadership must be able to contain the concomitant anxiety.

The second principle, “to build an enterprise focus on the individual,” if taken literally would mean a neglect of the systemic dimension altogether. Systems thinking as applied to organizational dynamics, for example Senge’s The Fifth Discipline (Senge, 1990), sees the individual as part of a nested set of positive and negative feedback loops connecting personnel, work flow, supplies, equipment, customers, and so on. The power of this approach lies precisely in its capacity for understanding organizational dynamics systemically and not focusing on the individual as an isolated entity. Furthermore, research in complex systems understands innovation as emerging from the interaction of individuals as semiautonomous agents. This, of course, is not to advocate a neglect of individual initiative or individual rights, but to realize that the individual is shaped by the organizational systems and subsystems to which he or she is linked.

The third principle has it that businesses should “focus directly on culture, indirectly”qualified with the admonition to focus on leadership, vision, purpose and strategy, performance measures, structure, people practices, and competitive contexts. The point is a good one: that to change culture, it is the forces that shape culture and not the cultural artifacts themselves that are the crucial leverage points. In terms of complexity theory, this could be interpreted as a call to work on the level of the organizational attractors and what factors are determining these attractors. Indeed, a good candidate for attractors in organizations is the culture of the organization, just as in an analogous fashion the climate could be said to be the attractor of the weather.

However, the Price Waterhouse team go on to say that only “clear, concise, and well articulated” strategies drive culture (p. 118). I sincerely doubt that strategy has this power, even the clearest, most concise and most eloquently articulated. Much more important than strategy are the reward systems that exist for following a particular strategy. Moreover, the strategy may be the very thing that is keeping the organization entrenched in outmoded patterns of behavior. Consider, for example, the clear, concise strategy of a successful typewriter firm in the late 1970s: make better and cheaper typewriters. The clearer, more concise, and better articulated this strategy was, the more the typewriter company was signing its own death warrant. One of the most significant applications of complexity theory to organizations has to do with the need to reinterpret what vision, purpose, and strategy mean in a complex system as opposed to how these management buzzwords have been used in the past.

In clarifying what they mean by their fourth principle, “true empowerment requires forceful leadership,” the authors stipulate that this kind of leadership is more about influence than command and control. But, then, surely “forceful” is a bad choice of term, for doesn’t it mean the same as “command and control”? They further characterize “forceful” leadership in terms of the great weight of responsibility resting on the leader, setting him/her apart from the rest of the organization. Yet, complex systems function via distributed control, which is based on the idea of shared responsibility. Even in cases of complex systems where there is some sort of hierarchical control mechanism, the source of innovation and, hence, new direction still rests largely on nonhierarchical sources. In complex systems, “forceful” leadership can lead in the exact opposite direction of where the organization needs to go.

This praise of “forceful” leadership also shows up in the authors’ claim that “When the dots aren’t connected, it only adds to the chaos and instability” (p. 34), the conclusion being that a forceful leader should connect the dots. But, isn’t it true that whoever connects the dots determines which patterns should be highlighted and which ignored, and doesn’t this highlighted pattern then lock the organization into ways of operating that may not be adaptive? Indeed, in a complex system there may be the need for “foolish” walks on adaptive landscapes that come from not connecting the dots, at least in the ways the dots have been connected to keep the organization trapped in local maxima (Kauffman, 1995).

The fifth principle, “to build you must tear down,” also goes against the grain of complexity thinking to the extent that it is allied with evolutionary biology. Thus, the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr (1997) has called the kind of logic that evolution uses to innovate “proximate logic,” to indicate that evolution is “miserly” and “opportunistic” by making do with existing parts, using them in new ways, or recombining their building blocks into new patterns. For example, whereas humans and chin-chillas share pretty much the same auditory systems, humans can decode speech in a radically different way than chinchillas (Lieberman, 1990).

Evolution then simply appropriated the standard mammalian auditory system. Moreover, the organic-like emergent patterns studied in artificial life are not the result of the tearing down of previous patterns but the recombination of them into new higher-level configurations, and, similarly, the trial and error strategies of genetic algorithms do not consist of tearing down but of trying new combinations . Tearing down, then, would slow down evolutionary advance.

Another problem with the book as a whole is the way that truisms are peppered throughout it in bold-faced, larger fonts, which is supposed to give the impression, I imagine, that these truisms say something especially significant. Here are two examples: “A leader is, above all, responsible for achieving the organization’s goals”(p. 137); and: “Confront reality. It is easy to delude oneself’ (p. 56). Of course, every book, even the most innovative, will have material in it that is old and worn, but why should the old and worn be highlighted, and why did they need all their research to prove truisms?

In terms of the idea of organizational paradox, in my opinion, The Paradox Principles would have received a boost if they had borrowed from Smith’s and Berg’s classic Paradoxes of Group Life (1987), which has been so engagingly utilized to understand organizational dynamics in the masterful study of British string quartets by Murnigan and Conlon (1991). The Paradox Principles could also have benefited from Gareth Morgan’s explicit connection of organizational paradox with complexity theory in the new edition of his now time-honored Images of Organization (Morgan, 1997)

In conclusion, in spite of the inclusion of “chaos” and “complex” in its subtitle, The Paradox Principles remains trapped in a mental model shaped by understanding organizations in an outmoded linear, simple, and equilibrium-based manner. To really understand how to manage in a chaotic and complex environment, the reader will have to look elsewhere.



Lieberman, P. (1990) Uniquely Human: The Evolution of Speech, Thought and Selfless Behavior, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kauffman, S. (1995) At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self­organization and Complexity, NY: Oxford University Press.

Mayr, R. (1997) Evolution and the Diversity of Life: Selected Essays, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Morgan, G. (1997) Images of Organization, 2nd Edn, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Murnigan, J. and Conlon, D. (1991) ‘The Dynamics of Intense Work Groups: A Study of British String Quartets’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 36:165-86.

Nicolis, G. and Prigogine, I. (1989) Exploring Complexity, New York: W.H. Freeman.

Smith, K. and Berg, D. (1987) Paradoxes of Group Life, San Francisco, CA: Jossey- Bass.

Senge, P. (199) The Fifth Discipline, NY: Doubleday.