Katy Perry and the Charm of the Paradox

05 October 2021

Sometimes in business, as in life, things just are not simple. The trick is in how you balance pragmatism with positivity.

According to Katy Perry, “You’re hot when you’re cold, you’re yes then you’re no, you’re wrong when it’s right”. Her song, Hot n’ Cold, is a hymn to the paradox.

A paradox is a logically self-contradictory statement, leading to a “Can this be so?” or “How odd!” response. I went to look at a car I was thinking of buying in Aylesbury recently. To my consternation the motorway was closed with traffic being diverted. So, I took a short-cut which I proudly thought would save me 30 minutes - only to encounter road works which held me up and made me later than had I stuck with the diversion. So much for the “short-cut”.

The paradox is much loved by mathematicians, philosophers and, more approachably, simply by those with a taste for irony. According to Kierkegaard: “the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion - a mediocre person”.

Well, we don’t want to be mediocre so here are some paradoxes which might strike a chord.

The Ship of Theseus

The ship sailed by the 5th century BC legendary hero Theseus in a major battle was kept in harbour as a museum piece. As the years passed some wooden parts rotted and were replaced by new ones. After a century or so had passed every part had been replaced. The question then is whether the “fully restored” ship is still the Ship of Theseus? This thought experiment has been debated by many over the years and, with apologies for grandiose phraseology, calls into question the boundaries and flexibility of identity.

If it is not the same ship, then when did that change happen? When 75% of the planks were replaced or when the last plank was replaced? Moreover, to take a point made by Hobbes, if all the discarded pieces were gathered and reassembled into a second ship would this other ship be the Ship of Theseus? Or could both be?

The charm of this paradox is that there is no solution as such. It invites you to reflect on the essence of identity. My instinct is that the restored ship remains the Ship of Theseus because the renovation over time is in the spirit of preserving the ship and the exploits associated with it. But many would differ.

It is also engaging to think of modern-day applications of this.

Is the rock band Yes still Yes even though none of the original band members are there? Surely yes (sorry) as the band evolved and renewed over time but then how to explain cases where differing band members have laid claim to a band identity - as has happened with Bucks Fizz and the Sugarbabes?

Is Tate & Lyle still Tate & Lyle even though it no longer sells sugar?

The Abilene Paradox

This is a business school favourite, so you may well have come across it.

In brief, the scenario is as follows:

On a hot afternoon in Coleman, Texas, a family is comfortably playing dominoes on the porch until the father-in-law suggests taking a [50 mile] trip to Abilene for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea”. The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that he must be out of step with the group and says “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go”. The mother-in-law then says “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time”.

The drive is hot, long and dusty and the food in Abilene is bad. The family arrive back after 4 hours, exhausted.

One of them says, dishonestly, “It was a great trip wasn’t it?”. The mother-in-law confesses that she would rather have stayed at home but only went along because the others were so enthusiastic. The husband says “I wasn’t delighted to be going. I only went to satisfy the rest of you”. The wife says “But I just went along to keep you happy. It was a crazy idea.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others were bored.

The group then sits back, wondering why they took a trip that no-one wanted to take.

The paradox of course is that the group makes a collective decision that is counter to the views and preferences of the individual members of the group. It is an extreme example of groupthink where some members of a group may disagree with a decision but decide to go with the flow.

Three takeaways:

  • have the confidence to speak up. We’ve all been in meetings where a proposition is developing which sounds dubious but where we hesitate to pitch in because the issue is slightly outside our area of expertise and/or we don’t want to appear stupid or negative. At Chris Saul plc the ExCo is discussing the possibility of sponsoring next year’s Festival of Speed at Goodwood. There is mounting excitement in the room, and the CEO is a keen petrolhead, but the Head of Sustainability is sceptical because it is not consistent with the firm’s ESG messaging and pretty expensive. He decides to keep quiet, assuming that he is being a kill-joy and not wishing to offend his boss, and the proposal is approved. He goes home regretting that he didn’t raise an objection;
  • leaders should promote constructive challenge. An important leadership skill is to listen to the views of others and to curate an environment where team members are encouraged to express their views openly and candidly. The CEO at Chris Saul plc is not doing a great leadership job if the Head of Sustainability does not feel comfortable expressing a view which runs counter to the presumed preferences of the CEO and the perceived mood of the group. This also underlines the importance of people in leadership roles encouraging and embracing feedback. As Netflix’s Reed Hastings says in “No Rules Rules” - “actionable candid feedback, with positive intent, enables high performers to become outstanding performers”; and, of course * never assume.

The Stockdale Paradox

In the particularly dark early days of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 much was written about The Stockdale Paradox and the valuable lessons which it offers when facing into a crisis.

The paradox was articulated by Jim Collins in Good to Great, a book with which many of you will be familiar.

Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking US military officer held in the Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam war. He was imprisoned for 8 years and tortured over twenty times. He was a great source of inspiration to his fellow prisoners and strove endlessly to increase the number who would survive unbroken.

Jim Collins asked him how he dealt with the ordeal and he said that he never lost faith in the fact that he would prevail in the end and get out. Collins then asked who didn’t get out and Admiral Stockdale replied that it was “the optimists” who said that they would be out by Christmas, then Easter, then Thanksgiving - and died of a broken heart. He then said:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

So that is the Stockdale Paradox - retain faith that you will prevail in the end whilst at the same time confronting the brutal facts of the moment.

Three reflections:

  • in times of crisis it is important to be resolute and hold the thought that “this too shall pass” whilst not not sugar coating the difficulty of the situation. Rolls Royce is an interesting case study here. As Ian King of Sky News has recently written, “Few in the battalions of big business in Britain endured a tougher pandemic than Rolls Royce.” IAG aside, it was the worst performing FTSE 100 share in 2020 (down 53%). And yet. The company dug in and took tough measures (including cutting 9,000 jobs and raising £5bn in equity and debt financing) but is now reaping the dividends of its fortitude. It has recently announced that it beat (no doubt intense) competition from GE and Pratt & Whitney to a $2.6bn contract to replace the engines on US B52 bombers and has sold its ITP Aero business for Euro 1.7bn. The prospects for its mini nuclear reactors also look promising. Its share price has increased 27% in a month;
  • undue optimism can be dangerous. Fans of Tim Harford’s excellent Radio 4 programme, More or Less, will be familiar with his thoughtful analysis that we in the UK were too slow to confront the brutal realities of Covid 19 and lock down. Much is also being written about delayed Governmental responses to the current shortage of HGV drivers and other key staff. More undue optimism?
  • but none of this is to suggest that we should all be gloomy pessimists. An optimistic frame of mind is precious - it just needs to be moderated by an honest and sober assessment of prevailing realities.

Less is more - for better or worse

I am very fond of the paradoxical notion that less is more. As I argue in The Mini-Magnum Principle [https://1drv.ms/b/s!AiNiB_DAS8su7wtWYzHL0YBdfr3e?e=8dnlqa] a Mini-Magnum is a more fulfilling product than a standard Magnum (better chocolate to ice-cream ratio) and there are numerous examples out there of gratuitous excess - such as Bartleby’s Law which states that 80% of the time spent by 80% of the people in meetings is wasted. And, in the world of corporate governance, the weight of reform proposals envisaged by the Restoring Trust White Paper risk being a serious burden on UK plc.

However, the UK Government’s proposals to reform data rules, in pursuit of a post-Brexit data dividend, remind us that just because you can reduce a regulatory burden does not mean that you should.

Among the proposals is a suggestion to remove Article 22 of GDPR, which guarantees a human review of algorithms’ decisions in areas such as loan provision or recruitment, and the scrapping of Cookies. Irritating though the whole Cookies thing is, they do allow individuals to decline tracking.

Not only would these changes be a worrying dilution of individuals’ data rights but they would put us out of step with other countries and risk creating more “hassle”, as the FT puts it, for business. Too much divergence from the EU, for example, might risk the revocation by the EU of the February agreement allowing for continued data flow across the Channel. And, in any event, businesses like Chris Saul plc which do business in the EU and in the

UK would have two regimes to comply with.

Here then is an example of a case where apparent reduction in complexity would likely result in an actual increase in complexity.

Disco saved dancing

With the return of the weddings, parties and Saturday night out (Michael Gove-style) comes a welcome resurgence in dancing. But here’s a surprising realisation, which I’m going to categorise as a paradox - disco saved dancing.

On a Saturday night in the 1950s my parents would normally go to the dance at The Queen’s Head in Tirril, Cumbria. They would dance the waltz, the quick-step and maybe the fox-trot as the dance band played. The years passed and rock n’roll and the twist (as in, “let’s twist again like we did last summer”) became popular. But with the rise of rock and heavy metal, by the end of the 1960s these dances were dying out.

And then along came disco in the 1970s. With infectious four-on-the-floor beats and syncopated bass-lines, artists like Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer and the Bee-Gees filled dance-floors and you no longer needed to know “the steps” or dance “with a partner”. Dancing was saved.

The paradox is that purists, and Strictly fans, would say that disco is not really dancing. It is just jigging about.

But the world is clearly a better place for the opportunity to be chained to the rhythm of a disco beat.

Christopher Saul

Christopher Saul provides independent trusted advice to senior executives and key stakeholders within publicly quoted and privately owned businesses and professional service firms. His areas of focus are governance, succession and the moderation of differences.

Send this article to a friend...

Further reading