Polarity Management

Adapted from Polarity Management by Barry Johnson PhD (Polarity Management - Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems - Barry Johnson - ISBN: 0-87425-176-7)

Polarity Management - Interesting name but what on earth is it and where does it come from?

In the Empty Raincoat Charles Handy talks extensively about the notion of "paradox " and the extent to which many of our modern paradoxes cannot be solved, as there are no single answers. He discusses them as simultaneous opposites and contradictions that need to be understood and managed with some degree of balance over time. He talks of the dilemmas which underlie all paradoxical issues in that the answers which may be right today will be wrong tomorrow. He sums his introduction to part 2 of the book up by saying:

"Balancing the opposites or switching between them, must not be a random or haphazard act. Without a clear rationale for what is happening, the balancing and the switching can be bewildering to those on the receiving end and frustrating for anyone doing the balancing. Without understanding things do not work out as they should. Living with paradox is like riding a see-saw. If you know how the process works, and if the other person at the other end also knows, then the ride can be exhilarating. If, however, your opposite number does not understand, or wilfully upsets the pattern, you can receive a very uncomfortable or unexpected shock. "

An American Consultant, Barry Johnson, has made the study of these paradoxes his life's work and has developed a methodology for working explicitly with important paradoxes which he calls Polarity Management. Essentially this works by taking some of the dilemmas which organisations face constantly and chronically, and identifying the underlying polarities which they represent.

He defines a polarity as an interdependent opposite and notes the extent to which our normal problem solving and decision making processes are based on making either/or choices. He notes the way in which we make sense of the world in either or choices, and thus one pole or another can become trendy.

So we talk of moving from individual to team and from competition to collaboration without acknowledging the value and contribution the pole we are moving from has made to our current success. This orientation leads to much 'resistance' in organisational change and many misunderstandings and difficulties in corporate governance.

The first step is in recognising polarities and their interdependent nature. The basic questions that help with this are:

  • Are there 2 or more necessary upsides (sets of benefits)?
  • Will focus on one extreme undermine the higher purpose over time?
  • Is the difficulty ongoing?
  • Are the alternatives interdependent - do they need each other over time?

This starts with exploring some more common ones and moves on to identify the main ones currently facing the organisation.

The next stage is in mapping some relevant polarities in more detail by:

  • Identifying neutral names for each extreme
  • Being clear about the higher purpose and the consequences of managing the tension well or badly
  • Identifying the upside and downside of each extreme
  • Identifying the ways in which one pole can be gained whilst the other is still maintained
  • Identifying the indicators when the pole is being overemphasised and agreeing action when this happens.

This then allows a group to monitor and course correct using a common language for issues which have previously been the source of much conflict and tension.

Alternatives which Create Tension

Throughout life (particularly whilst in the midst of leading transformation!) we find ourselves confronted with alternatives which create tension. These can be very real dilemmas and can often be heard as statements that contradict themselves and be seen as actions that do not match the words.

This can be particularly relevant when we are asked to choose between tension creating alternatives or when working on collective decision making. Sometimes in supporting a current strategy or value we may find ourselves missing the benefits of the alternatives and struggle with the tensions this creates.

Consider this list of the possible tensions in your organisation and as you read them force yourself to make a choice between them - circle your choice clearly:

  • Taking due diligence in decision making OR making speedy decisions
  • Reduce Cost OR Improve Quality
  • Focus on identifying problems and potential difficulties OR focus on developing solutions
  • Stability OR Change
  • Professionally Led Services OR User Led Services
  • Recognise the Individual OR Recognise the Team
  • Acting from Logical Analysis OR Acting from Feelings and Emotions
  • Showing Respect to Every Person OR Showing Respect Based on Performance

How many others occur for you?