The Dilemma~ 2 Visuals to help you See

1st Revision


2nd Revision


For more information on Dilemma and Product, please see this blog entry.

The image I have of managing a dilemma is that of flying a plane or sitting in a flight simulator. Another image is that of an individual using two hands to fly a kite. There are four corners to the wooden handle that holds the kite string and there are twists and turns, all the while keeping if steady in order to eventually land.

There are many good examples of dilemmas in the book Zen and Creative Management. Krishnamurti, in the video “What is Guilt” is resolving a Dilemma. I will be sharing some of them along with personal examples of how it seems to apply in my own dealings with dilemmas.

One of the most difficult things is figuring out what your dilemma is. Remember that Albert Low suggests that a dilemma has 4-horns, not 2-horns as most dilemmas are seen as having. The latter seems to be moral in nature. In his book Conflict and Creativity at Work, he talks about quad dilemma, suggesting multiple dilemmas. Furthermore, he suggests in the Zen and Creative Management’s foreword that, with dilemmas, we have to look at the big picture.

With dilemmas, unlike problems, there are no right solutions; one can only choose the most suitable decision. This has always been the case but nowadays managers do not simply have to wrestle with dilemmas that arise within their own companies, but also with those that arise from the interaction of their companies with society as a whole.

~ Albert Low

So Low suggests a template to follow when looking at dilemmas: simple, complete, pragmatic and communicative. What makes work so powerful is it allows us to project our human condition into the Dilemma. In fact, our human condition is a Dilemma. This conflict that arises out of the center-periphery. And rather than looking at experience as the cause of our conflict, we look at experience as necessary to live out the conflict that is being human.

This is a radical way of looking at things.

The first Dilemma example Low talks about is for a gas utility. Customers call in to the customer inquiry clerk, usually more so during the fall when it becomes colder.

The clerk must work as quickly as possible to get customers off the line so that others do not have to wait too long for service.

~Albert Low

On the other hand, the clerk must keep the customer on the line to get all relevant information accurately and to ensure that a service call is indeed necessary.

~Albert Low
Dilemma_HVAC example

Corner 3 “Send out as few service people as possible to keep costs down.” Corner 4 is self explanatory. Corners 1 and 3 are both concerned with Costs. The quicker the customer can be dealt with, the fewer clerks are necessary. Corners 2 and 4 are concerned with “quality”. Corners 2 and 4 are concerned with “quality.” These two criteria-cost and quality-form the basic limits of discretion by which results are obtained and work gets done.

Corners 1 and 4 are complementary and so are corners 2 and 3. By keeping the customer on the line for as long as is required to investigate the call, the number of service people being sent out to answer calls is reduced. The clerk could give each customer a short course in appliance servicing and so eliminate almost all calls. But diminishing returns set in, and only so much can be said and one by telephone. By simply asking each customer for their name address and then completing the order for a service call to be made, the clerk could get each customer off the line with dispatch. But, of course, this solution would be as unworkable as the short course on appliance servicing.

The forces at work in the dilemma can be shown in another diagram which will help to illustrate the universal nature of these forces:

Dilemma Forces

Further understanding of these forces is possible by remembering what we have said about the two tendencies at work within a holon. The first two horns of the dilemma, 1 & 2, are concerned with the internal, integrative aspect of the holon; the second two horns, 3 & 4, are concerned with the external, assertive aspect of the holon. Corners 1 & 2 are concerned with input or demand, and corners 3 & 4 with output or supply. The opposition between the integrative aspects, 1 & 2, and the assertive aspects, 3 & 4, becomes very apparent if the customer inquiry clerks report to one supervisor and the service people to another.

Corners 1 & 3 form the cost or integrative aspects and corners 2 & 4 the assertive aspects, or quality, of this same system seen as a holon. This time the system is viewed from the point of view of structure; earlier it was viewed from the point of view of process. The system can therefore be illustrated thus:


A complete picture has now been given of the tensions at work within the customer inquiry system between the time the clerk says, “Good morning, can I help you?” to when she says, “Thank you very much, good day.” In other words, there is a continuous cycle: tension, no tension, tension, no tension; or dilemma, absence of dilemma, dilemma, absence of dilemma.

Let us know take another example of a dilemma, this time an administrative system dilemma. Let us suppose that a salary administrator is asked to set up a salary administrative system. This time the following forces will be seen to exist:


When a salary administrator sets up a salary system, they have to recognize that it is but one of a number of systems that the company needs. They must therefore devise a system that will cost as little as possible in terms of resources and management time for setting it up and for operating it. The more streamlined it is, the better.

On the other hand, the salary administration system must be as complete as possible; all relevant jobs must be included. For example, if the system is designed for clerical employees, it is unwise to leave out some clerical jobs simply because of the difficulty of including them in the study. Furthermore, all relevant facts must be collected about all the jobs that are involved, and again it would be unwise to deliberately omit relevant facts because of the difficulty or cost of collecting them.

There is, therefore, an antagonism between these two considerations-the same antagonism that we encountered in the earlier example. The more complete the system, the higher the cost is likely to be. The simpler the system, the more likely it is that something will be left out.

In addition, the system must be designed so that it gives satisfaction to those whose salaries are governed by it. One of the requirements of these people is that the salaries are administered equitably, the other is that they understand the system; that is, equity is perceived as such. However, these two requirements are in conflict. Equity is obtained by ensuring that different levels of work are rewarded by correspondingly different levels of pay. Complete equity would prevail when each role had found its exact position in a pay hierarchy. Ideally, this would require a different level of pay for each role. But to explain to an employee why their salary is paid at one level and a colleague’s at a slightly different level when the difference between the two roles is barely perceptible is a difficult problem. This problem of explanation is also highlighted when it is remembered that there is always a borderline case whenever one tries to divide a continuum into segments.

Equality is easier to talk about than equity-people understand equality better than equity. unions have a tendency to want to erode pay differentials as it is easier to communicate equality to the rank and file. The same reason explains why dollars and cents rather than percentages increases are discussed. Dollar and cent increases tend toward equality; percentage increases tend toward equity. Equity, therefore, tends toward one grade for each job, while equality tends toward one grade for all jobs. Again, this is a conflict.

Thus, in the illustration of the system above, corners 1 & 2 are in opposition and so are corners 3 & 4. Corners 1 & 4, however, are complementary. The less complex the system, the easier it is to communicate. In fact, people often say, “Let’s keep it simple.” meaning “Let’s make it easy to communicate.” Corners 2 & 3 are complementary. The more complete and thorough, the greater the chance of equity being reached.

Furthermore, there are two internal aspects concerned with the system and two external aspects concerned with acceptance of the system: the first two concern the makeup of the system, the second two, the reception that others give it.

The Basic Dilemma

In the opening paragraph of the chapter, the author said that all mental work is concerned with the resolution of the dilemma. Can the insights that were gained from the study of the job of the customer inquiry clerk and the job of setting up a salary administration system be extended to become a general principle related to all jobs? If so, one would get a paradigm that could be used as a means of identifying the particular dilemma underlying any particular work. This would make the dilemma conscious. At present a manager must deal with the dilemma at an unconscious, and therefore inarticulate, level. The solutions one comes to may be correct, but because they are inarticulate they cannot be adequately communicated, nor, often, are they as simple as they could be if they were exposed to the light of conscious reason.

To assist in the development of this common structure, we must refer to some points already discussed. A theory, organization, or system could be judged by reference to four criteria: simplicity, completeness, pragmatism, and communicability. These can be related to our paradigm in the following way:

The Dilemma
Dilemma Template

Let us consider an organization to be a system that must be simple, complete, pragmatic and communicable, and then let us see how it improves our understanding of the problem of organization and the nature of the dilemma.

Organization is simple when there is no overlap between positions and therefore no redundancy in the system. Organization is complete when all work that should be done is done. The more complete the organization, the more complex it is likely to be. The more complexity, the greater the chance of territorial conflict. The simpler the organization, the less chances of conflict, but the greater the chances of something being left undone.

What we have said can be illustrated by the product-function opposition, which is a common problem encountered in organization. A basic problem that arises in organization is whether delegation of work should be made in terms of the “product” or the “function.” “The dilemma of product versus function is by no means new; managers have been facing the same basic question for decades.” “Corporations, especially manufacturers, have long wrestled with the problem of how to structure their organizations to enable employees, particularly specialists, to do their jobs with efficiency and productivity. One perplexing issue has been whether to organize around functions or products.” The question is whether specialists “in a given function, should be grouped under a common boss, regardless of the differences in products they are involved in, or should the various functional specialist, working on a single product, be grouped together under the same superior. “

Those who argue in favor of organization by function say that this system enables the best use to be made of up-to-date technical skills as well as making it possible to ensure the most effective division of labor and specialization. Furthermore, when organizing by function, better use is made of labor-saving devices and mass-production.

On the other hand, management by product provides the better basis for integration and co-ordination. The employees are more involved in the total product, and the work they do is more “enriching.” Thus, it is likely to create greater challenge as the work is more personalized, calling forth greater commitment.

A.H. Walker and J.W. Lorsche, quoted above, considered specialization (or “differentiation” as they would call it) and “integration” as two horns of a dilemma. Integration corresponds to what we have referred to as simplicity, and differentiation corresponds to completeness. By differentiating roles, the chances of the field being covered completely is increased; by concentrating upon integration, a manager ensures that the system will remain unified and simple. Differentiation generates conflict, but also challenge. Integration provides teamwork, but can lead to complacency. Lorsche says in another article, “The issues involved are so complex that many managers oscillate between these two choices or try to effect some compromise between them.” This oscillation approximates the solution arrived at by Bruno’s ass who, fixed exactly mid-way between two bales of hay, starved to death. Many managers, partially aware of the dilemma and wanting the best of both worlds, are unwilling to relinquish either horn and unable to accept both, and so end up with neither.

In the drive toward completeness many companies have become increasingly differentiated, which increases the tendency for roles to become isolated. To overcome the problems created by this isolation, meetings are often conducted and an attempt is made to arrive at joint decisions. In the light of our conclusions about territory it will be seen that an insistence upon joint decisions will give results not unlike the results the Soviets got by insisting upon collective farming. The care and concern that arises out of private ownership is lost. But, on the other hand, the “prima donna” complex that exclusive ownership of territory bestows can be a devastating influence within a company, and joint decision making is one way to avoid this complex.

The more unified a system, the simpler and more integrated it is, and therefore in terms of the two aspects of the holon, simplicity serves the survival or integrative mode. To be complete an organization must constantly reach out into untried fields, and therefore the completeness mode corresponds to the self-assertive mode. But, as we saw with the clerical role, corners 1 & 2 of the dilemma paradigm represent the integrative mode of the holon viewed along the process dimension. Thus, simplicity and completeness concern the way that roles, tasks, operations, and functions are delegated. They are concerned with the efficiency of the system. Corners 3 & 4, representing the pragmatic and communication aspects, form the assertive mode and concern the output of these roles, the self-transcendent aspect of the holon, and the effectiveness of the system.

The pragmatic criterion-the criterion of “does it work?”–is the one most often invoked by managers when judging an organization. However, it is not enough that a system accomplish work. It must be used by people and therefore has to be communicated to and accepted by them. These two criteria, the pragmatic and communicable, are in opposition. To their dismay, many people have discovered this when, having developed a completely workable way to solve a problem, they find that the higher system refuses to accept the solution because the solution does not conform to its particular way of seeing the world. That a system is workable is sometimes the very reason for its rejection. “Every new and good thing is liable to seem eccentric and perhaps dangerous at first glimpse, perhaps more than what is really eccentric, really irrelevant to life.”

Sometimes a manager must make up his mind whether to aim at getting results or getting acceptance, and many a manager has forced this dilemma upon his subordinates. Often a manager will do what is easily and readily acceptable even though he knows it will produce no worthwhile result. “What does it matter if the grass does not grow as long as it is green.”

There are instruments in many people’s work tool kits that are designed to make work easier or more effective but are never used because the workers do not understand how to use them. The instruments are “pragmatic” but not “communicable.” This is true also of many systems developed within an organization as well as of organizations themselves.

The paradigm that we have given, therefore, shows that the structure of the dilemma underlying work is complex and cannot be dealt with by ordinary logic. Indeed, the value of logic is to break open the dilemma and allow one to proceed as though its two horns were simply opposites. But the dilemma is not one, not two; the opposition within the dilemma makes it behave as though it were two, but its concreteness, its reality, resides in the unity. To break it into two is to destroy its very potential.

The dilemma, or its intellectual counterpart, the paradox, is, as C. G. Jung points out, essential if one is to describe a complete system. “Oddly enough, the paradox is one of our most valuable spiritual possessions, while uniformity of meaning is a sign of weakness. Hence a religion becomes inwardly impoverished when it loses or reduces its paradoxes; but their multiplication enriches because only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life. Non-ambiguity and non-contradiction are one-sided and thus unsuited to express the incomprehensible.

The dilemma not only underlies work, but all human activity. The exposition of the dilemma or the paradox is very complicated and is often very difficult to grasp. But because it leads one to the very core of work itself–to the difficulty of work–and even to the very core of life, it cannot be neglected.

Scientific integrity forbids all simplification of situations that are not simple, as is obviously the case here. The pattern of relationship is simple enough, but, when it comes to a detailed description in an case it is extremely difficult to see from which angle it is being described and what aspect we are describing.

~C. G. Jung

This chapter began with an implied question: “What is it that makes work difficult?” We have come to the conclusion that the difficulty of work resides in the tension generated by the dilemma. Nevertheless, it has been stressed that people enjoy work and that failure to find work of sufficient challenge causes a deterioration in the personality. It would appear that there is a contraction in these two statements because one of the more obvious aspects about people is that they seem to want to get rid of tension; to eliminate tension from themselves. The mind could even be considered to be a tension-reduction system.

If, however, we were to regard the mind as only a tension-reduction system, we should find forms of behavior that are impossible for us to understand. For example, why do people go to see horror movies; in fact, why do people to see any film or play at all? A good drama goes through a steady build-up of tension; Shakespeare, for example, would build up tension and then, by employing humor, release some of it, only so that more tension could be built up subsequently. In most good plays there are three or four peaks of tension. At the height of tension a synthesis is realized and a catharsis or release of tension results.

There appear to be two tendencies at work in people, and the mind appears to be a tension-induction/reduction system. Each person has a certain tension tolerance, and their aim would be to match their tolerance of tension to the work at hand. We tend to reduce the level of work to our lever of tolerance if the tension is too high, or on the other hand, we tend to increase the level of tension if it is too low. At a particular time one feels underworked, and as a consequence looks around for more to do. More and more is found until the feeling comes about that one is overworked, and as a consequence one starts letting go of more and more work until the feeling of being underworked recurs. Observing oneself over a period of several months, it will be found that a fairly regular cycle of overwork/underwork is experienced. Parkinson’s law expressed half of this cycle while the Peter principle expresses the other half.

There seems to be a need for tension in the system, but tension under control. As long as there is tension under control, life is interesting. It is when tension exceeds the point of tolerance that life becomes unbearable. Many people leave one job for another because they feel that the earlier job offers too little challenge, and challenge is one of the worst of all experiences, and boredom arises when a plateau has been reached and there is no tension in the system anymore.

The work situation is a creation that has great psychological value. Through work we humans are able to escape the effects of the dilemma by projecting it into the work situation. In a well-organized situation the dilemma is, as it were, caged, and the worker is able to enjoy its power without seemingly paying its price. Work is not the invention of the West; our contribution has been to deify work. Industrial work is modern human’s answer to a “religiousless” society. In past societies religion provided the source of human’s work, and through spiritual work religion showed humans how to go beyond the dilemma. The Mandala of the Buddhists and the Cross of the Christians can be seen to be symbols of the conflicting forces to which man is subject and the degree of suffering that these forces can create. Zen, more than any other spiritual discipline, invites humans to seek the heart of the primordial dilemma, to open himself to its implications and to finally resolve the dilemma in a way that does not destroy its potential.


As in most posts on, italicization of words refers to the words of either Jiddu Krishnamurti or Albert Low.  The website writer’s words are in regular text.

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