CEO Magazine Introduces “Paradox Thinking – A New and Counterintuitive Way to Solve Problems”

By Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier, Guest Blogger & CEO, EXCEL LEADERSHIP SOLUTIONS – Posted on May 16, 2014 

CEOAre you often faced with conflicting situations and mixed-message demands from your board, your team, key stakeholders, and the market? Take risks to grow dramatically and protect your current stability. Seek to maximize sales and watch the bottom line. Build future leaders and prove leadership excellence now.

Paradox thinking is “and” thinking. It enables balanced management of interdependent conflicting objectives. Adopting an appreciation for paradox ends the practice of viewing conflicting needs separately and addressing one over the other. Organizations do not reach their potential when they habitually use that kind of either/or approach to challenges. Their profit, morale, and ability to innovate suffer.

Think through the challenges of your organization as I unpack the struggles of one healthcare company to reveal priority paradoxes to drive focus for today and tomorrow. The name of the organization has been changed to ensure confidentiality.

Many of the conflicting needs that emerged from my conversations related to Affirm Health’s organizational challenges took on the veneer of either pro-facility or anti-facility, or pro-corporate or anti-corporate. That actually made it fairly easy to find pairs of conflicting needs.

Someone in a senior position for facilities management might be parked on one side of a conference table across from a physician who is the CEO of one of the many hospitals in the system. They would potentially have conflicts about where the money is spent and how best to support the mission of the company. Disagreements such as these are precisely how you can unearth valuable paradoxes. Don’t sit down to the conversation with the attitude “let’s all get along.” Instead, use the disagreement to establish a sense that you’re both on the same team, out to achieve the same Aim (best case scenario) and avert the big Miss (worst case scenario).

Here are selected pairings of conflicting needs for Affirm Health that came out of the conversations:

  • Clinical needs and Facilities needs – Without ever losing focus on quality patient care, there needs to be a coordinated effort to maintain structures in a first-class way.
  • Reducing costs and Increasing growth – The reality of reduced funds from key sources does not necessitate a hunker-down mentality when it comes to building the organization’s talent, impact, and potential to serve more people.
  • Slow, steady growth and Agility – Pacing growth in consideration of resource constraints does not preclude moving quickly in some areas to keep up with changes in the environment and changing needs of constituents.
  • Strategic plans and Business plans – Vision and standards give an overarching sense of direction from headquarters while the individual hospitals keep their focus on day-to-day actions.
  • Mission and Margin – Staying true to a healing mission driven by compassion and dedication to care for those most in need requires money.
  • Centralized control and Distributed leadership – Individual hospital CEOs need the freedom to act on what they know is the best way to serve their populations; at the same time, it’s important they adhere to best practices, budgets, and other corporate mandates.
  • Nurturing relationship with managers/leaders and Asserting expertise – Self/team-awareness of and confidence in skill areas must be coupled with an appropriate regard for authority.
  • Tight systems and Flexibility in care – Efficiency and adherence to protocols at the service end combine with tweaking the rules and “staying loose” to deliver personalized and customized care.

With Affirm’s twelve pairs—grouping the pairs thematically— took shape like this:


  • Business plans and Strategic plans
  • Reducing costs and Increasing growth
  • Slow, steady growth and Agility


  • Tight systems and Flexibility in care
  • Centralized control and Distributed leadership
  • Nurturing relationship with managers/leaders and Asserting expertise


  • Mission and Margin
  • Clinical Needs and Facility Needs

Exploring paradoxes by looking at the positive outcomes of managing them well over time¾and the negative outcomes of over-focusing on just one part¾should increase your situational awareness. The next step is determining action steps that will get you where you want to go!

Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier, president and CEO at Excel Leadership Solutions and a former partner at the Clarion Group, is a results-driven executive with a doctorate in management. She is author of The Power of Paradox: Harness the Energy of Competing Ideas to uncover Radically Innovative Solutions (Career Press).