Systems are part of a larger whole as well as different to all the other parts. This gives rise to the paradox of integration and differentiation.
Dictionaries define paradox as a seemingly self-contradictory statement. In systems thinking, paradox implies that a system holds different, seemingly contradictory values.
Because of the hierarchical organisation of systems, some values represent the system as an integrated whole (e.g. I am a woman) and as part of a larger whole (e.g. I am an English speaker), while others reflect its diverse parts (e.g. I am my husband’s wife, a systems thinker and sailor).
Development can “butterfly” from one extreme to another or proceed in a balanced manner by incorporating different sets of values, both integrative and differentiating. For example, many organisations “butterfly” between centralisation and decentralisation. If centralisation becomes inflexible and bureaucratic, it is replaced by decentralisation, which may lead to uncoordinated and even competing business units, calling for centralisation again, and so on.
Systems thinking advocates balanced development. For example, a systemic organisation continuously balances maximum decentralisation with maximum coordination. This requires ongoing learning and continuous change within stable structures.
Paradox can also be contained in a system through integrative values that transcend and coordinate the differentiated values, or by employing apparently contradictory values in different contexts. For example, freedom and security are paradoxical as the pursuit of the one minimises and eventually excludes the other (e.g. freedoms need to be curbed in order to ensure security and vice versa). They could, however, be also maximised within the system by using each in a relevant, function specific context.
The more differentiated a system is, the more it needs to be integrated. Systems with little diversity require little coordination. The more contradictions can be contained within a system, the more developed it is.
relevance for the change manager
Change managers need to shift from an “either / or” logic into an “as well as” logic, which allows them to integrate the seemingly contradictory tendencies inherent in the system they want to change.