What is Polarity Thinking?
Much of what occupies us in work and in life is about solving problems. We encounter technical issues or choice points (for example, like choosing a vendor/contractor), or we hit on a choice point in life: “Do I go to graduate school or do I join the workforce?”.
However, we also come across challenges that are not so much problems to be solved, but rather recurring issues characterized by interdependent, opposite and seemingly mutually exclusive concepts. These are called “polarities”, and they’re remarkably common: centralized — decentralized, cost — quality, margin — mission, task — relationship, etc.
Polarities (sometimes also called wicked problems, paradoxes, tensions, dilemmas, etc ) cannot be solved like a conventional “problem”, by working out which of the two options is preferable and then going for it. If you did so, you’d find that they’d rear their opposite. Instead of swinging like a pendulum from one end to the other, once an issue is identified as a polarity it can be leveraged. The two opposing values can complement each other when they are managed in a balanced way. That is challenging, but when done well, it makes all the difference. See Sokol, (2012) for a short case study on the global and local polarity successfully leveraged.
This used to be called “Polarity Management”, a term coined by Barry Johnson in his first book in the early 90s. More recently it is referred to as “Polarity Thinking”. The concept itself, however, has been around for longer with Barry tracing his polarity mapping back to the 1970s.
Often, what looks like problems may in fact be interdependent pairs which interact dynamically. This means they are not independent from one another, so when you attempt to “solve” for one, the other will gain dominance. Instead of using an either/or perspective, we need to recognize the “AND”, and then act on it.
This is the essence of polarity thinking. For example, a company could see a need to make a trade-off between saving money and improving customer satisfaction: if it reduces cost, customer satisfaction will go down, and enhancing it will cost money. But if instead you see it as polarity, then you can use parallel processes to develop a dual strategy that saves money and increases customer satisfaction at the same time.
This reflects not just on business decision-making, but also on leadership behavior and competencies. During the workshop Dr Johnson asserted on more than one occasion that leadership competencies should really be laid out in pairs. This makes intuitive sense, yet it is seldom seen in most leadership competency models, which are typically linear in orientation.
What does he mean by competencies laid out in pairs? Examples such as Clear — Flexible, Visionary — Grounded, Directive — Participative, Continuity — Transformation. An example of Leadership competencies laid out in pairs is in the Leadership Diamond, created by Peter Koestenbaum (see Davidson 2016 for treatment in a polarities context). See Seidler (2008) for a much (much) more extensive examination of leadership polarities.
Polarity thinking now uses a process characterized by the acronym SMALL:
The first step is to verify that the issue truly is a polarity and not a problem to solve. The mapping process puts the pairs on the left and right (the two poles). At the top of the map you put the superordinate goal. And guess where people are using this process… That’s right, healthcare for example!
Sensemaking through the process of team mapping.
We recently did this exercise for a new team I am on, with two poles we will be working to balance — Efficiency AND Effectiveness. The polarity mapping activity is a form of team reflexivity as the team works to make sense of the polarity dynamics.
I went to my first polarity thinking workshop five years ago, but this week I was still struck by a couple of subtle differences from this session. For example, when mapping, you do not need to know the names for the poles to begin with, but can just conceptually walk through what the struggle is in your work (or life) and then name the poles after you have more information. Barry said to start in the lower left quadrant then work up to the upper right quadrant.
Polarity Thinking and Organizational Change
Polarity thinking is well suited as an instrument to help design and develop organizational change. In either/or thinking you might start with the benefits of the change and only look at the negatives of not changing. With polarity thinking you would map out all points of view as they are all valid.
And instead of the stability being seen as a problem to overcome it is acknowledged as “real” and needs to be worked with. The same is true for the other point of view. Those who value stability will not see the upside to change until their views on stability are recognized and valued.
Once all the views are mapped out you can move on to action steps (Johnson 2017). Basically you and your team ask yourself “What are you doing or will you do to get the upside of each pole?” It could be something you have already started. Sometimes, action steps can apply to both upsides — these are called “High Leverage Action Steps”.
The action steps go on the top half of the map on the left and right of the poles. Then map out “early warning signs” on the bottom of the map that show leading indicators you are starting to experience the downsides of that pole. Barry explained that these were once red flags (which people from some countries did not understand), then changed to yellow flags (which people from other countries did not understand), and are now simply referred to as early warning signs.
Two key points from Barry Johnson specific to organizational change:
- If you want to guarantee the failure of a change effort, tie it to one pole of a polarity.
This is tantamount to failing to recognize the polarity and treating something as a conventional problem. This is why the initial step verifying whether it’s a problem or a polarity, is so critical.
2. If you want success, tie it to both poles of a polarity.
And seek out high leverage action steps!
The goal is to end up with what Barry calls a virtuous cycle where you are leveraging the advantages of both, instead of a vicious cycle where you have the downsides of both poles.
Five Personal Key Takeaways
- The reinforcement of the ”interdependent pairs” as the foundation of a polarity. This is easy to forget especially when trying to explain polarity thinking. Yet it makes it so easy to understand.
- If you over focus on one pole, you get the downsides of that pole AND the downsides of the other pole (this is not very intuitive and may lead to a bit of research my part).
- You do not need equal resources on each pole, you just need “enough”. It would be an oversimplification to think they need the exact same (time, money, thought) but I found it very helpful to think of it more in terms of optimizing.
- Polarity is NOT about compromise or even trade offs. It is about leveraging the two poles. This statement really struck me as it is much easier to think of compromise while that is not the essence of polarity thinking.
- Some issues really are problems and require either/or thinking. Not everything is a polarity so if a speaker says for example that we need to reject all either or thinking,- well they are incorrect. As helpful as polarity thinking is, it is not a framework to paint everything in your world with.
Since this is a mashup up of introduction to polarity thinking and a recap of the workshop, personally I really appreciated Barry’s presence, style, and professionalism. He stayed on time, laid out expectations well, and operated with precision (i.e., timing activities and if he said 2 minutes or 5 minutes we stuck to the plan). Part of his rationale for this was to illustrate that polarity mapping does not need to be a long drawn out process. It can be completed efficiently and effectively.
So, next time you run into what seems to be an intractable problem in your organization or life, pause and determine if you might be dealing with a polarity. Consider utilizing the polarity mapping process to explore if dynamic tensions need to be addressed in a new way and leverage those polarities. It might save you time, and much more!
Davidson, J.E. (2016). The infinite power of polarities. In D. Jamieson, R. Barnett, & A. Buono, (Eds.), Consulting for organization change revisited (pp 255–277). Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing.
Johnson, B. (2017). “Polarized to Synergized: How to Leverage Polarity for Leaders, Organizations, & Nations” Presentation at the University of St Thomas Executive Education.
Johnson, B. (1996) Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems Kindle Edition. HRD Press.
Seidler, M (2008) Power Surge: A Conduit for Enlightened Leadership. HRD Press, Inc.
Sokol, M. (2012). Developing Polarity Thinking in Global Leaders: An Illustration. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice V 5, Issue 2.