Balancing Contradictions: Finding a Rainbow

Free wallpaper / desktop wallpaper - rainbow, farmland, by mick y

Typically, we love our children and want to fill their lives with all our own unmet, unfulfilled expectations – buy them all the toys we never had, or enroll them in the piano lessons we never recieved. On the other hand, we don’t want to have everything spoon fed to them – want them to become self-reliant and independent in decision-making. This contradiction of love and protection, and developing self-reliance, is something that most parents struggle with, specially, like me, if you have a teen-ager at home.

In a business setting, you are constantly besieged by new opportunities (and risks). A new market in Brazil, a strategic-alliance opportunity with a Fortune 50 company, or a new white space that could be capitalized on immediately; all of this is, with the daily backdrop of exceeding current customer expectations, making a profit for the shareholders, and keeping your team members (and other stakeholders) satisfied. Balancing the contradictory expectations of today’s profit and tomorrow’s growth is one of the critical decisions organizational leaders face in private or public enterprise. 

On a daily basis, whether you are a parent, an organizational leader, you are searching for balance between emerging, contradictory expectations. 

Typically, there is no one, perfect solution to these conundrums; what is more common, is the degree of risk associated with making significant mistakes, or, in engineering, we call it, achieving optimality conditions. Not always achieving the “maximal” profit that you believe you deserve from a decision – but balanced a growth and profit objective for corporations – or if you are a parent – a balanced independence – indulgence quotient. 

To achieve such an optimality condition, we don’t have to  make a compromise, or what we typically call a “cop out”; often, we get caught up on “false choices”. Recently, we moved into a new office space. At the time of the decision-making, we wanted take an environmental position and  move into a Green building (LEED certified), yet wanted to lower our annual operating expenses.

Most people told me that’s impossible; the excuse: the initial investment is too high. However, with creative, team thinking, by lowering our projecting energy costs over the short/medium term, we were able to meet both our cost objectives and meet a corporate goal. Reaching such a solution needs complete “system thinking” and understanding the Total Life Cycle Cost of a decision. 

As a leader, this often means taking into account, the time horizon of the decision and how it impacts all stakeholders in the long-term avoiding a “win-lose” situation and striving to create (and articulating) a “win-win” scenario. I have often heard the term – an elegant solution – something that’s acceptable by everyone and it’s good for everyone in the long-term. 

Elegant solutions are not easy to find and most often are not the first solution we think of. Usually, the first step to reaching such an elegant solution is: genuine engagement of different stakeholders in such a decision. As organizational leaders, when we are asked to make a decision, we are presented the viewpoint that is beneficial to one side of the equation and asked to make the decision quickly (because, in business, time is money).

As leaders, it behooves us, to take the time and find the counter-point to the proposal – what are all the possible things that could go wrong with the decision. There is always a counter-point and a constituency that is against the decision;  we have to go and find that counter-point and not get swayed by only immediate gains (or satisfying the need of one constituent). Once we know the counter point, it will make us seek that balance, that will benefit both sides of the equation.  

Often, a decision, of such nature, requires selling it to all the stakeholders; the idea (e.g. going into a Green Building because we are an environmental technology company) maybe completely foreign to some of the constituents. I was asked by a senior official in my organization why we would spend this kind of money in a difficult economy. A very legitimate question – even if it’s born out of ignorance or lack of “system thinking”.

 I have found that as leaders, we often assume that everyone has the same level of information we have or have the same decision-making path/model. The mental trap we get caught is that everyone (in the decision-making authority) is highly compensated and intelligent and they should (automatically) know this path!  This is where we need to get beyond our pride, and make the case for change – both with facts and emotions.

Ultimately, good leaders have to make the right decisions and stand by their decision. Indecision is synonymous to poor leadership. 

On a South Florida summer afternoon, after some torrential, monsoon-like rain, when suddenly the sun starts shining, we see  nature’s contradictions; we are mesmerized by the magnificent rainbow that emerges in the distance. 

When as a parent, or a leader, we face this need to balance expectations, we have to search for this elegant, beautiful rainbow, that appeals to everyone. There is always a solution – that meets our contradictory expectations. We need the courage and perseverance to go and find the rainbow. 

Now, only, if I could find the rainbow in my teenager’s constant need to stay connected with her friends via texting, cell-phone, Facebook and all the other electronic media.

There  has to be  a rainbow in this constant connectivity. I have to go and find it.


2 thoughts on “Balancing Contradictions: Finding a Rainbow

  1. This is very interesting. The article covers a wide range of issues that are faced in life and business: Expectations, Optimum Solutions, Trade offs, Alignment, Information, “System Thinking”, …

    Your comment on leadership is very apt. Indecision is not an option. From the engineering perspective we tend to always seek that “elegant solution” – synthesize and marshal the information at our disposal and come up with the solution that meets the constraints and has optimum yield. I too find this is not so easy in the day to day or the business side of things – Contributing to the complexity is the information gap that exists (as you point out), the variables at play, etc. Doing the best with what you know now and acting as opposed to waiting indefinitely for the right conditions and having all the information. (I keep telling myself this but to no avail :)) But Entrepreneurs in this part of the world seem quite adept at this I find and “jump in” with courage with relatively little information and do succeed.

    You are right about Information – access to it and sharing and disseminating it is key to collective decision making and arriving at the the best possible answer. With regard to aligning expectations (regardless of where it originates) is it possible/worthwile to invest efforts in tempering these expectations with doses of reality and information and aligning the expectations with whats possible and what is “right” before trying to meet it – I wonder. The financial crisis comes to mind where repeatedly institutions were trying to meet unrealistic expectations of high returns with risks that were just not manageable.

    Enjoyed the article Zain. Keep sharing your thoughts on the business world as you negotiate it in these difficult but interesting times.

  2. Good food for thought on balancing competing forces or interests. I like the impetus for leaders to actively seek out the other constituents, the contradictions, the possible ways how things could go wrong – and then to decide holistically, looking at maximizing the outcome for the majority or all constituents, looking to maximize the outcome for the long run (as opposed to my short-term boom followed by your long-term bust).

    I also like the thoughts on parenting, given that my son just turned into a teenager the other day. Which parent has not felt the tug of opposing forces between wanting to hold-on and needing to let-go, between protecting from harm and pushing beyond comfort to nurture self-dependence? And who has not witnessed the incessant teenage texting in search of the gold at the end of the rainbow!

    The need to balance such forces also applies in many other domains of life. One example is what I called Immersion versus Insulation on how to balance protection from with exposure to the elements in nature and adventure.

    Zain, thanks for this great post.

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