A paradox is a statement that seems self-contradictory but may be true. It appears to contradict common sense, but we believe it, nonetheless. It contains two true statements that, in general, cannot both be true at the same time, yet it challenges us to explore the distinction between truth and plausibility. For example, if I say, “I’m a compulsive liar,” do you believe me or not? Can someone be both a compulsive liar yet telling the truth at the same time? A modern-day philosopher, Yogi Berra, inadvertently emerged as the king of the paradox with such statements as, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded,” or the ever-popular, “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t come to yours.”
Exceptional organizations offer their own paradox: They must react nimbly to the current, ever-changing global economy while steadfastly holding to their mission, vision, and values. To remain the same, exceptional organizations must change adeptly and agilely, thus creating a ship of Theseus or a Theseus paradox.
The Athenian hero, Theseus, was probably mythical, but the ancients regarded him as an historical person, the first king to establish Athens on a firm basis as a unified city-state. Theseus appeared in several Greek tragedies, nearly always embodying Athenian ideals of humaneness and magnanimity. He also overcame insurmountable challenges, like killing the half-man half-bull monster, Minotaur, and escaping from a mazelike labyrinth.
After killing Minotaur, Theseus returned to Athens where his countrymen maintained his ship in a seaworthy condition to honor Apollo, the god to whom they had pledged their fealty for Theseus’s safe return. Legend implies that the devotion to the god and the commitment to maintain the ship lasted at least until about 300BC, but a paradox emerged–one that metaphorically mirrors the paradox that business leaders face.
The ship of Theseus paradox raises the question of whether an object that has had all its component parts changed remains fundamentally the same object. Through several centuries, every worn or rotted plank and wooden part of Theseus’s ship had to be replaced with new, stronger timber. That prompted the philosophical question about the nature of identity-how much can something change and remain the same?
Regardless of these issues of the originality of the ship’s structure, for Athenians the preserved ship kept alive their understanding that Theseus had been an actual, historic figure — which none then doubted — and gave them a tangible connection to their divine providence. They didn’t care whether it remained the same ship or not; it served the function that they needed it to.
Similarly, today’s organization will need to find the balance between legend and truth, originality and innovation, today and tomorrow. Most leaders build their companies based on their beliefs about the future; however, that future has shown itself to be unpredictable and fickle. Worse, should the future not turn out as expected, the requirements of breakthrough success demand implementing strategy in ways that make it impossible to adapt. Thus, the paradox.
Devotion to an outdated strategy or fealty to an unrealistic vision won’t help you, but a culture that has its roots in tradition will. Much as the Athenians maintained the seaworthiness of Thesues’s ship, you’ll want to preserve the aspects of your organization that define it while replacing the worn and rotten aspects of it.
Paradoxically, organizations with the greatest possibility of success also have the greatest possibility of failure. That is, the same behaviors and characteristics that maximize a company’s probability of success also maximize its probability of failure. The status quo stands firmly at odds with innovation, and the commitments of today often don’t align with the reality of tomorrow. As Yogi said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”