You Are Now Entering the Trade-Offs-Free Zone

japanWriting in a book on Japanese organisations, Zeleny makes a case for their greater ability to deal effectively with what we usually experience as irresolvable dilemmas. Let me allow him to make the core of his case himself:

‘There are not conflicting objectives per se. No human objectives are in conflict by definition, that is, inherently conflicting. Everything depends on the given situation, the historical state of affairs, the reigning paradigm, or the lack of imagination.

We often hear that one cannot minimise unemployment and inflation at the same time. We are used to the notion that maximising quality precludes minimising costs, that safety conflicts with profits, Arabs with Jews, and industry with the environment. Although these generalisations may be true, they are only conditionally true. Usually inadequate means or technology, insufficient exploration of new alternatives, lack of innovation – not the objectives or criteria themselves – are the cause of apparent conflict.

Trade-offs among multiple objectives (there can be no trade-offs when only a single objective is considered) are not properties of the objectives themselves, but of the set of alternatives or options that they are engaged to measure. This simple truth is often lost in the self-assured whirlwind of conventional economics.’

Zeleny advocates the ‘trade-offs free concept’ in a way which is reminiscent of Charles Hampden-Turner’s work with dilemmas. It is not surprising that many of Hampden-Turner’s examples of people dealing effectively with dilemmas are drawn from Japanese business. That the Japanese seem able to perch more comfortably on the horns of a dilemma he takes as a function of their culture. We can see this as present in the Yin-Yang concept and its symbol of interlocking commas which, in effect, illustrates that opposites will always be present, though in varying amounts. Our tendency is to try to resolve a dilemma in favour of one of the poles. We want to get things sorted out – clear and logical. Unfortunately for us though, life, the world and other people are recalcitrant.

Implicit in the point Zeleny is making is that we have a way of viewing ‘Reality’ which hampers our dealing with seeming opposites. We have a particular way of thinking about a conceptual entity, such as ‘unemployment’ or inflation’, and not only take it for the only way of thinking about that subject, we event forgot that it is a way of thinking. We take it as an objective reality, out there in the world, and unchanging. In that sense we are Reality fundamentalists and epistemological fanatics. Entry into the trade-offs-free zone is open only to those who can hold their ideas a little more loosely. Reality-lite, mmmh!

Graham Dawes