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Working with dilemmas

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Dilemmas are part of the fabric of organisational and individual life; these are often presented as the choice between two (or more) equally compelling propositions. In this free course, Working with dilemmas, you will focus on how to address dilemmas effectively. In particular, you will explore the extent to which dilemmas are or should be treated as choices between two extremes, and how the response to and resolution of dilemmas can move beyond binary choices to the reconciliation of opposites.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • recognise the nature and extent of dilemmas in organisational life and the challenges they often present for customary ways of thinking
  • explain the limitations of treating dilemmas as if they were choices
  • reconstruct individual organisational dilemmas using Hampden-Turner’s dilemma theory
  • use these two approaches to engage constructively with colleagues over challenges and dilemmas encountered.

By: The Open University

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Working with Dilemmas

Introduction

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Dilemmas and choices are part of the fabric of organisational and individual life. We are often presented with two (or more) equally compelling propositions. These may be the trivial, such as whether to purchase a coffee or tea at a café (in which case the term dilemma would appear excessive), or they may be key turning points in our lives such as changing a career. Whatever these are, there is a need to find ways of resolving dilemmas – for example, by finding criteria that can be used to make the decision and select a particular option. If we do not address dilemmas effectively we could end up frozen into inaction (unable to make a decision) or using inappropriate techniques to make them (leading to poor decisions).

A typical approach to dilemmas is to treat them as two opposing poles from which we need to select, often called the ‘horns’ of the dilemma. An example from the literature on strategy is Porter’s idea of generic strategies (1985), i.e. should an organisation go for cost leadership (low cost mass production) or differentiation (low volume high value niche products)? In this way dilemmas are presented as dichotomies, as a choice between these two poles – the dilemma is resolved by selecting one pole. In this free course, that assumption will be put to the test. In particular you will focus on:

  • The extent to which dilemmas are or should be treated as choices between two extremes.
  • How the response to and resolution of dilemmas can move beyond binary choices to the reconciliation of opposites.
  • The ways in which our values affect the way we perceive and respond to dilemmas.

Given the practice focus here, the free course not only explores these issues conceptually but offers you two approaches which offer practical insight into the construction, recognition, understanding and response to dilemmas.

This OpenLearn course is an adapted extract from the Open University course BB847 Management beyond the mainstream [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

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