Modern organizations are rife with tensions and paradoxes, requiring the people within them to integrate conflicting agendas and contradictory demands on a regular basis. For instance, product developers have to consider cost issues and follow specifications when developing new ideas. Typical reactions to contradictory demands include a sense of threat, defensiveness, and a tendency to focus on one demand at the expense of the other.
To facilitate the integration of conflicting agendas and contradictory demands, individuals can adopt what University of Cincinatti Professor Marianne Lewis calls ‘paradoxical frames’. A paradoxical frame is activated when a problem is identified, its contradictory elements are revealed and explored, and alternative solutions are found and tested. The problem solver acknowledges the tension between opposing task elements, yet understands that combining them tempers the undesirable side effects of each element alone and leads to new solutions that integrate both elements.
We have all received directions that seem contradictory. For example, “Make sure everything is planned and organized for the release of our new product; but also be sure to remain flexible so that we can deal with last-minute requests from customers in a timely manner”. If a paradoxical frame is activated when an employee receives these directions, she will recognize the inherent incompatibility of simultaneously achieving high levels of planning and flexibility, but she will also understand the potential for planning and flexibility to positively reinforce one another. Planning and organizing, for example, can help prepare for alternative reactions of customers and thus enable greater flexibility when addressing their needs.
If a paradoxical frame is not activated, the employee is likely to focus on only one dimension and not the other, missing the opportunity to achieve both. Instead of eliciting such ‘either/or’ thinking, paradoxical frames elicit the type of ‘both/and’ thinking that can result in the discovery of links between opposing forces and the generation of new frameworks and ideas.
Paradoxical frames may be especially effective in helping people perform creative tasks, because they encourage the juxtaposition of inconsistent elements and therefore increase the breadth of attention and the accessibility of knowledge related to the different elements. Research indicates that a broader attentional span and diverse knowledge foster the generation of new connections between activated elements: Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile and her colleagues have shown that the larger the number of cognitive elements that are relevant to the task and activated during the ideation process, the higher the likelihood that unusual associations or solutions will be generated and the larger the pool of available novel ideas.
When solving a problem, individuals generally draw primarily on typical thinking, implicit assumptions and prior experience. Consciously adopting paradoxical frames reduces the likelihood that the thinker will fall back on conventional lines of thought. Paradoxical frames may also increase individuals’ capacity to tolerate different perspectives and to integrate these different perspectives by generating new linkages among them – increasing what has been called ‘integrative complexity’.
Integrative complexity was originally conceived to reflect individual differences in thinking style: individuals who are low on integrative complexity dislike ambiguity and dissonance, seek cognitive closure, and tend to form dichotomous (good-or-bad) impressions of other people. In contrast, individuals who score high on integrative complexity have a more flexible, open-minded, and multidimensional stance toward the world. These individuals are able to recognize contradictions and can tolerate inconsistencies in others’ motives and behaviour.
Adopting paradoxical frames is likely to increase the sensitivity to contradictory elements in an environment as well as the capacity to understand them and search for ways to combine them. The mental activation of contradictory elements leads to deep examination and improved understanding of each element. This deeper exploration of concepts and categories increases the generation of ideas related to the category and enhances creativity. Activating paradoxical frames also stimulates the integration of opposing elements, and forming new linkages and synergies between commonly unrelated or opposing elements is a vital source of creativity.
Consider, for instance, the creativity-cost efficiency tension that is often present in product development settings. Viewing this tension through a paradoxical lens enables the search for new solutions in which creativity and efficiency coexist and reinforce each other. When differentiating between creativity and efficiency, individuals realize that, while creativity requires exploration, risk taking, flexibility, and tolerance of mistakes, efficiency, by contrast, is associated with exploitation, adherence to constraints, and structure. By contrasting these elements, individuals gain a better sense of the antecedents and consequences of each element and as a result, can integrate them more effectively, searching for new strategies, processes, and structures that allow for their co-existence.
Along with my colleagues Ella Miron-Spektor of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and Linda Argote of Carnegie-Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, I recently conducted four laboratory studies to test the hypotheses that paradoxical frames enhance creativity. In one study, 81 students participated in exchange for $10. The study consisted of two parts: a priming task to manipulate cognitive frames and a creativity task to assess our dependent measure. The description participants received read:
Below are pictures of a prototype for a table vehicle that was developed by Forever Young Toys, a small but highly successful toy company. The table vehicle is able to carry a small cup of water for a distance of 3.28 feet (1 meter) without spilling the water. This prototype was chosen by a committee of product designers out of 200 prototypes due to its high creativity (creativity-frame condition)/ low production cost (efficiency-frame condition)/ high creativity and low production cost (paradoxical-frame condition and creativity–efficiency condition). This prototype was chosen to represent the company in Simple Design, a prestigious competition of designers.
Next, the instructions reported the product designers’ impressions and explanations for choosing this product to represent the company. The impressions varied across conditions. We used this procedure to activate different cognitive frames through which the participants would filter their knowledge and attention.
In the creativity-frame condition, the frames emphasized the product’s uniqueness and novelty (e.g., “This product is unique and creative. I like the novel uses the designers found for the materials”). In the efficiency-frame condition, the descriptions emphasized the product’s low cost and efficient production process (e.g., “This product is very cheap. I can tell that the designer carefully chose the materials to assure that the final product would not be expensive”). In the paradoxical-frame condition, the impressions emphasized both the creative and the efficient aspects of the product as well as the tension between creativity and efficiency (e.g., “This product is both unique and efficiently built”; “The most difficult thing is to make creative products that are cheap’’).
Finally, in the creativity–efficiency-frame condition, participants’ material read: “This prototype was chosen by a committee of product designers out of 200 prototypes. Some judges liked the fact it is efficient while others liked its creativity.” In the reported judges’ impressions and explanations for choosing this product, some judges emphasized its creativity (e.g., “This product is unique and creative. Especially I like the novel uses the designers found for the materials”) and others, its efficiency (e.g., “This product is very cheap. I can tell that the designer carefully chose the materials to assure that the final product would not be expensive.”) In contrast to the paradoxical-frame condition, none of the judges evaluated the product as being both creative and efficient, and none of them referred to the relationship between creativity and efficiency.
In the second part of the study, participants completed the Remote Association Task (RAT), a common measure of creativity. The RAT has been shown to capture changes in creative performance resulting from situational factors. The RAT measures divergent and creative thinking by testing the ability of individuals to identify associations between words that are normally associated. In this task, participants are asked to find a word that is logically linked to all of three words provided. For instance, ‘cold’ is the common word linking the words ‘sore-shoulder-seat’ together. Participants had six minutes to solve ten RAT items. We counted the number of correct responses for each individual and used this number as our measure of creativity.
The results of our first study confirmed that paradoxical frames enhance creativity: participants were more creative in the paradoxical-frame condition than in the creativity, efficiency, or creativity–efficiency-frame conditions. Importantly, our findings also showed that the positive effect of paradoxical frames on creativity was due to the paradoxical relationship between creativity and efficiency (i.e., the paradoxical-frame condition) and not merely to their joint activation (the creativity–efficiency-frame condition).
Across four studies using different manipulations for activating paradoxical frames and different creativity tasks, participants who were primed with a paradoxical frame demonstrated higher creativity levels than did participants who were primed with creativity, efficiency or creativity–efficiency-frames.
Our results suggest that adopting paradoxical frames is particularly likely to lead people to embrace atypical possibilities, thus enhancing their creativity. Importantly, this effect was produced using different manipulations of paradoxical frames as well as multiple tasks to measure creative performance, demonstrating the robustness of the link between paradoxical frames and creativity.
Paradoxical frames shift the focus from competitive to complementary thinking, thus allowing people to accept the inherent contradiction and find ways in which both task demands can be accomplished. We found that when participants perceived creativity and efficiency as simultaneously contradictory and complementary, they were most creative. Our findings are consistent with a related effect documented in the emotions literature, which shows that individuals primed with contradictory emotions are more creative than those primed with only one emotion.In closing
My research with Profs. Miron-Spektor and Argote has uncovered a relationship of both theoretical and practical importance. Given that our complex, contradiction-filled environment shows no signs of slowing down, we hope that it will stimulate further thinking about the importance of embracing contradictions and consciously adopting paradoxical frames.Francesca Gino is an associate professor of Business Administratoin at Harvard Business School. She is the co-author, with Ella Miron-Spektor of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and Linda Argote of Carnegie-Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, of “Paradoxical Frames and Creative Sparks: Enhancing Individual Creativity Through Conflict and Integration.” This paper was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (Elsevier, 2011). To read the complete paper, Google ‘paradoxical frames and creative sparks’ or visit francescagino.com/publications.html.
[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]