Sub-theme 26: Exploring the Paradoxes of Organizations and Organizing

Wendy K. Smith
Lerner College of Business and Economics, University of Delaware, USA
Costas Andriopoulos
Cardiff Business School, UK
Marianne W. Lewis
College of Business, University of Cincinnati, USA

Call for Papers


Designing organizations raises multiple, interwoven tensions. By defining who we are, what we do, and how we do it, we inherently imply the opposite forces (Clegg, 2002; Ford & Backoff, 1988), resulting in such tensions as exploring vs. exploiting, centralization vs. decentralization, stability vs. flexibility, and control vs. freedom. Such opposing elements emerge in the nature of our organizations, as well as in our processes of organizing (Weick, 1979).

Traditionally, theorists have responded to organizational tensions via a contingency approach. Asking "under what conditions should we engage A or B?", contingency theory emphasizes either/or tradeoffs. For example, Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) identified structural distinctions of when to differentiate or integrate, whereas Tushman and Romanelli (1985) highlighted time periods to more effectively explore or exploit.

An alternative, paradoxical approach asks how organizations can sustain competing demands simultaneously. According to paradox theory, underlying tensions are inherent within organizations, and attending to these competing demands simultaneously enables long-run organizational success (Smith & Lewis, 2011). Rather than explore either/or tradeoffs, a paradox perspectives identifies both/and opportunities. By recognizing the ongoing persistence of underlying tensions, paradox theory points to the need for dynamic, adaptive organizations, and flexible, improvising routines (Clegg, Cuhna, & Cuhna, 2002; Smith & Lewis, 2011).

Increasingly research has adopted a paradox perspective, pointing to underlying tensions in the design of organizations and in the process of organizing, as well as exploring how to use design to effectively engage competing tensions simultaneously. For example, research on ambidexterity identifies how design features such as the organizations structure (O'Reilly & Tushman, 2008) and context (Gibson & Birkinshaw, 2004) can more effectively support tensions. Others have reflexively recognized the role of engaging competing demands to drive greater creativity and innovation into the design process (Andriopoulos & Lewis, 2009; Rothenberg, 1979). For example, paradox underlies the principles and process that enables the management of self-managed teams at LEGO (Luscher & Lewis, 2008).

In this sub-theme, we seek to explore how paradox theory might shift our understanding of design. Specifically, we invite papers that explore some of the following, illustrative questions:

  • Underlying tensions. What competing tensions emerge in the design of organizations and in the process of organizing?
  • Strategies. How can we more effectively design organizations to embrace paradoxical tensions simultaneously?
  • Outcomes. What are the outcomes associated with different strategies for engaging paradoxical tensions? Alternatively, how does a paradox perspective effect definitions of organizational performance and success? For example, does a paradox lens necessitate shifting traditional definitions based on a profit motive to broader and pluralistic stakeholder assessments?
  • Methods. How can researchers explore paradoxes? How might paradox-oriented methods differ from dominant conventions aimed at identifying tradeoffs through central tendencies? What qualitative and quantitative approaches can enrich paradoxical understandings?


This sub-theme extends the overall EGOS theme of Design!? by offering an alternative lens on the nature of design, as well as how to use design to enable more effective organizations. By exploring tensions and their management, we can offer new insights into the processes and structures of design, and explore the creativity that emerges from these tensions.


Andriopoulos, C. & M.W. Lewis (2009): "Exploitation-Exploration Tensions and Organizational Ambidexterity: Managing Paradoxes of Innovation." Organization Science, 20 (4), 696–717
Clegg, S.R. (2002): "General Introduction." In: S.R. Clegg (ed.), Management and Organization Paradoxes. Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V., 1–10
Clegg, S.R., J. Vieira da Cunha & M. Pina e Cunha (2002): "Management Paradoxes: A Relational View." Human Relations, 55 (5), 483–503
Ford, J. & P. Backoff (1988): "Organizational Change In and Out of Dualities and Paradox." In: R. Quinn & K. Cameron (eds.), Paradox and Transformation: Toward a Theory of Change in Organization and Management. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 81–121
Gibson, C.B. & J. Birkinshaw (2004): "The Antecedents, Consequences and Mediating Role of Organizational Ambidexterity." Academy of Management Journal, 47 (2), 209–226
Lawrence, P. & J. Lorsch (1967): Organizations and Environment: Managing Differentiation and Integration. Homewood, IL: Irwin
Luscher, L. & M. Lewis (2008): "Organizational Change and Managerial Sensemaking: Working Through Paradox." Academy of Management Journal, 51 (2), 221–240
O'Reilly, C. & M. Tushman (2008): "Ambidexterity as a Dynamic Capability: Resolving the Innovator's Dilemma." In: A.P. Brief & B.M. Staw (eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior, Vol. 28. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 185–206
Rothenberg, A. (1979): The Emerging Goddess. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Smith, W.K. & M.W. Lewis (2011): "Toward a Theory of Paradox: A Dynamic Equilibrium Model of Organizing." Academy of Management Review, 36 (2), 381–403
Tushman, M. & E. Romanelli (1985): "Organizational Evolution: A Metamorphosis Model of Convergence and Reorientation." In: B.M. Staw & L. Cummings (eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior, Vol. 7. Greenwich: JAI Press, 171–222
Weick, K. (1979): The Social Psychology of Organizing. New York: McGraw Hill


Wendy K. Smith Wendy Smith is associate professor of management in the Lerner College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware. She received her Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Harvard University and the Harvard Business School. Her research managing strategic paradoxes, exploring and exploiting and ambidexterity has been published in places such as the Academy of Management Review, Organization Science and Management Science.
Costas Andriopoulos Constantine Andriopoulos is professor of strategy in Cardiff Business School. He received his PhD from the University of Strathclyde. His research focuses on the management of creativity and innovation with particular emphasis on professional service firms. His recent projects focus on managing tensions and paradoxes to sustain innovation in high velocity industries. His articles have appeared in Organization Science, Human Relations and Long Range Planning, among others.
Marianne W. Lewis Marianne Lewis ( is professor of management and associate dean for undergraduate programs. Her research explores tensions, conflicts, and paradoxes that both impede and enable innovation. Her paper, “Exploring paradox: Toward a more comprehensive guide” received the Academy of Management Review Best Paper Award in 2000. She has since applied her paradox lens to varied areas of innovation with representative articles appearing in such journals as the Academy of Management Journal, Organization Science, Journal of Operations Management, and Human Relations.