6 ways organisations deal with dilemmas

6 ways organisations deal with dilemmas

Following on from the previous post ‘New research: Organisational responses to dilemmas and emergencies’ in this post I will look at what the research says about the 6 ways organisations deal with dilemmas.

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It has previously been found that there are six main ways organisations deal with these secondary order tensions, paradoxes and dilemmas:

  1. Denial. The organisation just doesn’t recognise or see the secondary order tensions, paradoxes and dilemmas and operates as if they don’t exist.
  2. Cosmetic responses. This is where organisations take action that appears to deal with them, but don’t. For example where they hold a meeting with all the concerned departments and agencies to talk about and agree a set of actions to deal with the issues, without executing the actions required.
  3. Selection. This is where the organisation selects which secondary order tensions, paradoxes and dilemmas to deal with and either ignores those that are just too hard to deal with or those that they haven’t got a ready solution to.
  4. Alternation. This is where the organisation flops from dealing with one issue or pole of a dilemma to another, but doesn’t actually deal with them together. In effect the organisation keeps switching its focus and swinging between the issues without seeing them as a whole picture. As a result they often fail to see the connections between issues.
  5. Segmentation. This is where different departments or units are dealing with and trying to solve different secondary order tensions, paradoxes and dilemmas without coordination.
  6. Transcendence. The authors note that this occurs when “when organizations openly acknowledge the dilemma and tensions confronting them, accept it as a paradox, and attempt to work out creative responses. Organizations adopting this approach would emphasize continuous vigilance, adaptability, learning, creativity, improvisation, and “going with the flow.” These organizations would have flexible structures, communication-intensive processes, and experimental approaches to problem solving.”

Usually, because transcendence responses require constant and consistent vigilance and management, they are always in danger of degenerating into one of the other types of responses.

Additionally because denial, selection and cosmetic responses appear to be the least costly, especially in terms of effort, creativity and time, they are the most frequent responses in most organisations. However, as previous research has shown, these three strategies lie at the heart of the failure of most complex inter-agency/inter-departmental responses.

This table shows the properties of each response type:


Transcendence responses appear to be the most costly initially because it necessitates co-operative problem solving and consensus building, which takes time and high levels of engagement.

In the next post I will look at the the conclusions of this research and what it means for your organisation.

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page