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Paradoxical Thinking & Breakthrough Oxymorons

Paradoxical Thinking & Breakthrough Oxymorons

| On 16, Sep 2018

Darrell Mann

Here’s my new favourite delegate exercise in team-building workshops. The inspiration comes from a twenty-year old book, Paradoxical Thinking, that I found in a junk shop last year (Reference 1). Ultimately it’s yet another book in the category ‘would-have-been-a-lot-better-if-the-authors-knew-TRIZ’, but nevertheless it contains some very nice ideas about personal conflicts and contradictions. The idea behind this article is to add one or two of the missing pieces TRIZ might have added to the story.

The exercise I’ve been conducting is best done as an individual one, although I have watched a couple of teams have a go at doing it for their team and it still delivered some useful insight. For speed, though, doing it yourself is faster. When I did it on myself, it took about 15 minutes.

  1. Here are the basic steps of the process:
  2. Write down a list of your 10 best characteristics
  3. Write down a list of your 10 least attractive characteristics
  4. Construct a Perception Map showing how each of your characteristics lead to the others
  5. Looking at the loops and collectors in the map, identify your most important characteristics, and then examining pairs of these characteristics, identify the duo that seem the most contradictory, and form the pair into an oxymoron statement
  6. Take the oxymoron characteristics and map the spectrum of positive and negative interpretations of each of the words
  7. Use these words to build a 2×2 matrix that maps the best and worst of you and highlights how you might best solve your contradiction

As with most things, an example is the best way to see how the process works in practice. At the risk of giving away too much about myself, I’ve made the following example about me. If nothing else – potentially killing two birds with one stone – this will also tell readers how to get the best (and worst) out of me if they happen to read or respond to any of my future articles!

1)    10 Best Characteristics

The idea here is to get a top-of-mind list of things you like most about yourself. You could also get other people to make the list for you if you’re unhappy thinking about what you might be good at. You could even get other people to do the exercise for you. Or compare what they come up with to how your own analysis emerges. Anyway, here are the ten things I listed about myself:

A – Pattern-Finder
B – Creative
C – First-Principles Diver
D – Persistent
E – Big-Picture/Meta Analysis
F – Fair/Desire-For-Justice
G – Connector
H – Needle-Finder
I – Navigator
J – Educator

2)    10 Worst Characteristics

I found making this list easier – indeed, I found I needed twelve items rather than ten because I struggled to eliminate any of the two extras. Again, you might find it easier to get other people to help you make your list. Here’s mine:

K – Hair-Trigger/Red-Mist
L – Procrastinator
M – Impatient
N – Selfish
O – Over-Stretching
P – Can’t Say No
Q – Taker OF The Easy Option
R – Greedy
S – Anti-Authority
T – Cut-Nose-To-Spite-Face
U – Controlling
V – Lazy

3)    Perception Map

A simple ‘leads to’ analysis for each of the twenty (twenty-two in my case) characteristics. I initially thought that the process would give me two loops – one connecting all of the positive characteristics and one connecting all of the negative – but what I actually got was a much more interesting single-loop picture in which there are multiple instances of positive characteristics leading to negative ones and vice versa. Here’s what my final map ended up looking like:

Figure 1: Perception Map Of Personal Characteristics

4)    Personal Oxymoron

My Figure 1 Perception Map was quite unusual in that there were seven characteristics in the loop. Characteristic ‘B’, Creative was the most important one on the map, being both in the loop and also a strong collector. When I tried to formulate a conflict combining ‘creative’ with another characteristic in the loop, nothing really stood out to me. What did stand out, however, when I looked at the other six characteristics in the loop was that ‘Impatient’ and ‘Procrastinator’ felt like definite opposites and so I made ‘Impatient Procrastinator’ into my personal oxymoron. These both happen to be characteristics from the negative side of my personality – when I’ve seen others do their version of the process on themselves it is more common for the conflict pair to be formed from one positive and one negative characteristic. There’s no right or wrong answer here, firstly because it’s your analysis of you, and, related to this, only you will know when you’ve found an oxymoron that’s evocative and meaningful to you. Of course, it’s always nice too to come up with an oxymoron statement that is intriguing to others. That’s why finding oxymorons is central to the Paradoxical Thinking approach.

5)    Oxymoron Spectrum

The key to this stage is the recognition that the words we use to describe ourselves tend to be thought of as wholly negative or wholly positive. Call someone a ‘procrastinator’ and its never a compliment. But – perhaps the key point of Paradoxical Thinking – being a procrastinator can also have its positive side. The aim of this part of the process, therefore, is to map out both the positive and negative sides of the words in the personal oxymoron from the previous stage. The following table shows how I made these positive and negative interpretations for my ‘impatient procrastinator’ oxymoron.

Table 1: Positive & Negative Ends Of ‘Impatient Procrastinator’ Spectrum

6)    Personal 2×2 Matrix

Finally, we get to have some fun constructing a 2×2 Matrix. Like all the best matrices, the two axes should represent dimensions where there is some kind of conflict – i.e. our oxymoron in this case – and have the top-right-hand quadrant represent the best-of-both-worlds situation where we ‘solve the contradiction’. The fun part (for me at least) is deriving some evocative labels for each of the four quadrants. The matrix shown in Figure 2 is what I ended up with when selecting words (and in some cases evolving them) from Table 1.

The labels I derived for each quadrant then say, at my worst, I am an ‘irritable ditherer’. This is the me that specifically doesn’t solve my ‘impatient procrastinator’ conflict. Conversely, the best of me – the times when I am able to solve the conflict – I’m an ‘unstoppable detective’. I think I like this option better. Especially in light of the book ‘The Art Of Procrastination’ we reviewed a few years ago (Reference 2). Whether I’m able to achieve it all the time I’m not sure, but what this top-right quadrant label gives me is a target I need to be aiming for in order to solve my impatient procrastinator problem.

If I only get one of the two characteristics ‘right’ I’m either a ‘bumbling dynamo’ or an ‘incoherent sage’, two more oxymorons that I can use as a warning sign that I’m not being the best version of myself that I can be.

And that’s ultimately the point. No-one is perfect all the time, but at least if we know what our big conflicts are, and where we sit at any moment in our 2×2 matrix, we can at least begin to recognize what we need to do next.

Figure 2: 2×2 Matrix Of ‘Impatient Procrastinator’ Characteristics

If any readers out there find themselves with a spare quarter of an hour in the next month, I heartily recommend you try making your own analysis. You might just find out something about yourself that you didn’t know. If any of you are feeling particularly brave, we’d love to see your 2×2 matrices. Who knows, maybe, with your permission, we might even publish a few of them (anonymized or not according to your wishes) in a follow-up article?


  1. Fletcher, J., Olwyler, K., ‘Paradoxical Thinking: How To Profit From Your Contradictions’, Berrett-Koehloer Publishers Inc., 1997.
  2. Systematic Innovation E-Zine, ‘Book Review: The Art Of Procrastination’, Issue 133, April 2013.