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Tai Chi Logic: A Thinking Tool for Management Problems in VUCA Era

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Author: Ding Ronggui     Translator: Zuo Jian     Source: PMR
In VUCA era, we face significant challenges in management activities due to Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA). New ideas, theories, methods and cases are emerging endlessly. However, instead of assisting us in managing enterprises and projects, these tools make us more confused and restless. The new challenges cannot be addressed by means of conventional management theories and methods such as administrative power, authority, teamwork and reliable planning. We are constantly challenged by technological innovations such as Artificial Intelligence(AI), Internet of Things(IoT), digital resources and Block Chain, leaving us feel insecure as the traditional skillsets are obsolete. In theory, management should serve as the driver of technological innovation and social development. However, the current management methodology not only lags behind technological development, but also will likely become the barriers to technical innovation and social development.


New Logic Is Essential to Solve Management Problems in VUCA Era

It is useless to change for the sake of change. We may end up lost in various new technologies and big data. A traditional Chinese saying goes, “You will receive nothing if you do not keep practicing.” If the only focus is placed on management theories and methods, the fundamental philosophy will not be discovered, and the epistemology of management personnel will not be formed. If such epistemology cannot be realized by clear logic, management theories and methods will likely become dogmatic and specious. Consequently, effective management strategies could not be realized on a timely basis according to aims and conditions.

Change is the driver of VUCA era. The only thing that does not change is change itself. However, the logic and methodology of us viewing the world has to be stable. As stated in The Diamond Sutra, “If all forms are seen as unreal, the Tathagata will be perceived.” It is imperative to focus on the essences of human beings rather than on the surface of VUCA so that we could have a frame of references to external changes. Changing for the sake of changing will easily lead to confusion. A clear and stable logic will help us to gain a better vision in the rapidly changing world and provide both physical and mental freedom as it helps us to understand the rationale behind success or failure to prevent us from going to the extreme, and improve our management efficiency by making most of internal and external resources. In other words, it is crucial to seek for fundamentals of management such as epistemology and the logic structure.

Management is very unique and should not be a subset of other disciplines such as literature, economics, mathematics and psychology. Chinese martial arts will sustain because of its uniqueness. Discipline is no different. Independence of management cannot be achieved without a unique epistemology and logic to understand the world. It is not useful to solely rely on big names or disciplines.

The process of management is the process of dealing with contradictions. Changes result in not only innovation but also contradictions which need to be addressed by management. Dealing with these contradictions justifies the existence of projects and presents significant challenges to managers. Our society is full of contradictions. On the one hand, contradictions may facilitate the development of society. On the other hand, they may lead to turbulence and decay of the society. The major role of management personnel is to identify and solve various contradictions in day-to-day activities. The value of management personnel will be largely compromised if those contradictions could not be identified and solved.


The most important job of managers is to identify and solve various contradictions that are difficult to be dealt with via existing measures. This is particularly the case for those contradictions amongst people, between people and organizations in terms of objectives and resources. In certain circumstances, managers may have to create some new contradictions so that contradictions take place at a manageable pace. 

Contradictions should be solved without detrimental effects. It is worth noting that contradictions are not objective by nature; the awareness of contradictions varies according to each individual. There are so many different kinds of contradictions and it would not satisfy managers’ need to simply rely on the general guidance such as “detailed analysis for each specific problem”. 


Tai Chi logic is the fundamental principle for managers to identify and solve contradictions. Correspondingly, it is a key criterion to distinguish managers from other professions.

Tai Chi Logic Is Rooted in I CHING (The Book of Changes)
As a philosophy source of Chinese culture, I CHING is the masterpiece of explaining the strategic relationship between changing and not changing. It is also a bible of forecasting, analyzing, and dealing with contradictions. In the traditional Chinese community, I CHING is the top of all theories. A number of philosophies are developed such as Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, military strategy, etc. 

The fundamentals of I CHING is to classify all changes into several systems consisting of two contradicting basic units (i.e. Yin and Yang). The evolution of these systems is according to inherent relationships featured with the unity of opposites. The fundamental of traditional Chinese wisdom is “One is divided into two which are combined into three.” “One” refers to one kind of contradictions; “two” refers to two forces of strengths which creates contradictions; “three” refers to the third force emerging from the forces that can be adopted to effectively resolve the contradiction. This often leads to the misconception that Chinese culture is hard to understand and that the logic is confusing.

The Chinese dialectics is based on I Ching, and it differs from western dialectics in the following aspects: 

Firstly, Chinese dialectics pay more attention to the particularity of people. Western society emphasizes company culture and management regulations. By contrast, Chinese perceive the intangible rules to be even more important than tangible rules. It is because intangible rules are more appropriate in identifying and dealing with emerging challenges from changes. Unlike natural science, main sources of management contradictions are the differences in goals, resources and perspectives between stakeholders, which means all contradictions are associated with people. People-oriented approach is required for both identifying and dealing with contradictions. It is difficult to achieve ideal win-win in management activities. Management personnel is always in an awkward position where one contradiction is fixed and another is emerging. Therefore, it is imperative to understand those intangible rules and how these rules could be implemented in management activities.

Secondly, Chinese dialectics pay more attention to the particularity of changes. Although such laws as “the quantitative change transforms to the qualitative change” and “the negation of negation” in western dialectics also imply changes, Chinese dialectics further specifies the unified law which reflects all changes and more emphasis is placed on the specific drivers of these changes. Chinese dialectics is a kind of logic based on the balance between status and benefits. The logic facilitates the judgement for the tradeoff between A and B, two contradicting conditions. Chinese dialectics is elastic and it changes in presentation forms. The variables make the logic process difficult to understand by foreigners. 
The particularity of contradiction is universal. The process of finding the universal law from the contradictions of these cases to form the theory is indeed seeking truth from facts. These theories provide useful hypothetical guidance for future practices. The efficiency and reliability of finding and resolving contradictions can be improved by using these theories. However, these theories can’t provide so-called “correct” answers for discovering and resolving contradictions. Can the universal law identified in solving contradictions in specific cases be directly used to solve other similar contradictions? This needs to be tested in practice as "practice is the sole criterion for testing truth".
The way of thinking to identify and deal with management contradictions can be called Tai Chi Logic. Three keywords of Tai Chi Logic are: Yin Yang, Tai Chi and Zhong-Yong. In the context of Tai Chi Logic, the harmony of an entity is relative. Any harmonious entity consists of two contradictions that are both cooperative and competitive, i.e. Yin and Yang. The key to dealing with these contradictions is the tradeoff between benefit and loss from the evolution of these contradictions. The best timing of dealing with these contradictions is the Tai Chi phase, i.e. when Yin and Yang has not diverged during the evolution process. Indeed, Zhong-Yong presents an effective strategy to deal with these contradictions via the interaction between Yin and Yang or relying on the third party. 

Chinese see the essence of contradictions as the outcome of contradictions of two contradicting yet harmonizing power (i.e. Yin and Yang). Meanwhile, the timing of dealing with these contradictions is during the Tai Chi phase. In other words, Tai Chi is a period when the chaos has been divided into two extremes, i.e. Yin and Yang. This presents the best opportunity to deal with contradictions by means of management measures. The efficiency and effectiveness of this period is very high for related parties are most likely to accept the solutions. It is one of the most crucial criteria to evaluate the level of Chinese wisdom by means of the capability of identifying and controlling the Tai Chi phase.  

The effectiveness of Zhong-Yong oriented solution depends on whether contradictions could be solved during the Tai Chi stage. Missing of such timing will lead to extreme measures, which is detrimental to management effectiveness. Similarly, Zhong-Yong aims to avoid stereotypes, which is linear and unidimensional. With stereotypes come lack of flexible approaches by spatial and temporal transformation, or transformation between tangible and intangible resources, which are only available in higher dimension. Such inflexible approaches don’t consider the dynamic process of Zhong-Yong. In a comparatively static context or short period of time, Zhong-Yong could be extreme, for Zhong-Yong does not aim for stability or fairness in certain aspects. Rather, Zhong-Yong aims for the overall fairness for everyone and efficiency in certain aspects. It is not feasible to go for Zhong-Yong for sake of Zhong-Yong itself.

In summary, Tai Chi logic involves consideration of the following issues: how to define major contradictions following Yin-Yang (law of unity of opposites), how to define the Tai Chi stage when main contradictions will be solved most easily according to the revolution of contradictions, and how to develop solutions according to philosophy of Zhong-Yong (Mean). These are three fundamental pillars of Tai Chi Logic. The fundamental of Tai Chi logic lies in seeking truth from facts. Meanwhile, the biggest enemy of seeking truth from facts is dogmatism. According to the principle of the unity of opposites (i.e. Yin and Yang), the contradiction can be identified. According to the evolution law of Tai Chi (i.e. differentiation between Yin and Yang), the best timing to solve the contradictions can be defined. According to the replacement principle of Zhong-Yong, the solutions can be identified to balance the needs of stakeholders. 

Culture Attributes Play Important Roles in Management 
Just as the evaluation of cuisines is closely related to cultural background of the chef and customers, management is closely related to the cultural background of management personnel and those being managed. One of the most popular Chinese food is dumpling while pizza is one of the most popular fast food in western countries. The differences between dumpling and pizza can arguably represent the differences between Chinese culture and western culture. The delicious part of pizza is left outside with the color and smell attractive to customers. On the contrary, the delicious part of dumpling is left inside. You will not be able to taste the delicious dumpling until you have bitten its skin. Indeed, it is a forewarning of failure if the inside was disclosed. It is very common that some like dumpling while others like pizza. In practice, it is necessary that people making dumpling collaborate with those making pizza to create new cuisines.

The cultural difference often results in the contradictions in management theories, methods and systems. Without a better understanding of cultural differences, it is difficult to remain calm and define solutions when contradictions emerge. Thousands of Chinese people study in United States, Europe and Australia every year. Overseas channels such as HBO, NHK and BBC are available in top Chinese hotels. Many of my overseas friends show their appreciation for Chinese culture, e.g. traditional arts, Tai Chi boxing, and use quotation from Confucius and Lao Zi. Everyone is interested in understanding each other and cooperation. However, most cultural exchange is undertaken in social or cultural aspect, rather than for business and management. Many of MBA programs in Chinese institutions are based on western management theories and methods, which helps Chinese managers to understand the western management style. However, very few western managers understand the culture of business and management in China. A number of papers from China have been published in international management journals and their research methodology is based on western management theories. As a result, the conclusion from these papers can sometimes be misleading for Chinese practitioners. The imbalance between the understanding of Chinese and western business and management culture is harmful to the competition and cooperation in business and management.

China needs to understand the rest of world and vice versa. With the largest population and the second largest GDP, China has provided the best market and development opportunities for the rest of the world. As the largest developing country in the world, China has the highest level of intensity in terms of development. The development of China relies on various types of projects to a large extent. These projects will not be successful without the support of advanced international technologies, management, funds, human resources and information. In other words, China and the rest of world are stakeholders of each other. It is necessary for China and the rest of the world to understand each other, which is essential for both competition and cooperation.

Management is a flawed beauty, so is the logic that people use to perceive the world. Tai Chi logic cannot replace other logics, dialectics and epistemologies that explain the world. Similarly, other logics cannot replace Tai Chi logic. “See a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flow”. Different roles and responsibilities in different kind of worlds cause people to employ different logics. 
About the author: Ding Ronggui, professor and doctoral supervisor of Shandong University, is now Editor-in-chief of Project Management Review (PMR) Magazine. Professor Ding Ronggui is also the coordinator of IPMA global research. 

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