Types of Dilemmas

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Dilemmas produce so much frustration and friction that the psychological room to stop and consider their exact nature is hard to secure. From our practice, we would estimate that 40% of the conflict in organizations comes from unidentified dilemmas. Organizational structures are replete with departments unintentionally positioned for continued and escalating conflict because they straddle a dilemma. One help in deciphering dilemmas is to start with identifying the fundamental flavors of dilemmas, which are enumerated below.

Classic dilemmas

Different criteria, same behavior

There are conflicting criteria for the same behavior. While the blend may be difficult, it is essential. Each side of the dilemma is valuable only because of the other side. Attempts to live only under one side of the dilemma are fatally flawed.

  • Order /\ Freedom
  • Empowerment /\ Alignment


Temporal dilemmas

Same process, different criteria applied at a different time

A special case of a classic dilemma occurs with an activity which is complex enough to be a work process or a project. Often there are criteria dominant in the early part of the process that conflict with criteria that become dominant in a later point. For example, accuracy of information taken during the sales cycle is essential for the timely processing of the order. The separation (functional or temporal) between the relevant events is an illusion; good process design and good project management pull for combining criteria and designing them into the work.

  • Innovation /\ Manufacturability
  • Speed (customer satisfaction) /\ Accuracy (process integrity)


orthogonal dilemmas

Different behaviors, different criteria

There are two different sets of behaviors that seem diametrically opposed. They generate different cultures, different structures, different staffing. While there may be a hybrid that is preferable, the blending is optional; a company could be viable exploiting just one half of the dilemma.

  • Centralization /\ Decentralization
  • Service orientation /\ Product orientation

Deciding whether to take on the dilemma is a matter of vision, strategy, and/or values. If the company decides to pursue a hybrid, the work is like a classic dilemma.

Sequential dilemmas

Different behaviors, different times

Different behaviors which conflict with each other, but the most likely solution is to sequence them appropriately; the tension in the dilemma eventually becomes one of relative emphasis, timing, and transitioning.

  • Performance /\ Development
  • Work /\ Home

(It is actually important to keep these last two separate. "Bringing work home" or "marrying a co-worker " would not necessarily be a resolution.)

The key strategies for sequential dilemmas are

  • Proportion of time to spend in each
  • Sequencing of the activities
  • Thorough transitioning

Unequal dilemma

The dilemma is split across unequal status

Sometimes a person in authority will assert one side of a dilemma. For example, the CEO announces that the company will commit to high growth rates, severe cost cutting, or product innovation. And he or she ignores the corresponding position that defines a dilemma:

  • High growth /\ Organization integrity
  • Fiscal stabilty through cost cutting /\ Preserving capability
  • Product innovation /\ Support for existing product lines

So the executive celebrates the growth in business, while employees are struggling with the shreding of work processes, the burden of onboarding more and more staff, or the deteriorating satisfaction of customers from the lower quality of service. Because of the unequal status of the various players, only one side of the dilemma receives attention. And the authority of the executive can be used to dismiss or denigrate the employees who voice concern for the other side of the dilemma. They are defined as pessimists or "not team players". So the tension in the goals goes unaddressed; unfortunately the negative consequences of the imbalance will accumulate regardless.