In the top quadrants, we’ll capture everything we hope to achieve by valuing, prioritizing, or honoring each side of the polarity, and in the bottom quadrants, we’ll jot down everything we fear could happen if were to over-index on that side and lose sight of the oppositional value.
Let’s take Quality vs. Speed as an example.
For most of us, it’s easier to fill in one side than the other. Particularly when we have a stake in the issue, debate, or system, we tend to identify more readily with one value over the other—even while recognizing both. That is what makes polarity mapping so valuable as an empathy-building exercise. It pushes you to see the issue from both sides and to develop your understanding of the hopes and fears associated with each of the values and viewpoints.
That deeper understanding is what will allow you to establish a common language, which is key to articulating a path forward and managing the balance of the polarity. If you are advocating for a product team to focus more on Speed and rapid cycles, you are more likely to get the Quality-focused individuals on board if you can speak to their hopes while demonstrating an understanding of their fears.
“I understand that you highly value brand reputation in the long term and relationships with our customers. To maintain both in an increasingly competitive environment, we need to improve our rate of learning, and to do that, we’re going to push toward faster product cycles to increase experimentation and feedback.”
With demonstrated empathy, a common language & care, you’ll be better able to shift the balance in the direction that the organization needs to move in the moment, and if you read the moment correctly, you will see returns on the move you made (e.g., as the organization or team realizes the benefits of increased focus on Speed and a consequent boost in the rate of experimentation/learning).
This is top-quadrant territory—the place where hopes are realized. But in the domain of polarities, it is also the place where we can easily fall into the very human pattern of “doing more of what’s working” and eventually lose the delicate both and balance that polarity management requires. If we’ve moved too far from a Quality focus in pursuit of Speed, we begin to realize the things we might have feared (flatlining customer satisfaction, loss of repeat business, product team burnout, etc.), and here, the natural and responsible reaction is to correct course, right the ship & turn back toward a Quality focus.
The risk, of course, is that the brush with the downside of Speed can result in an overcorrection as the organization steers hard into Quality (rushing to embrace new KPIs, elevating the Quality advocates, realigning processes, etc), and we wind up in an oscillating cycle that threatens to be deeply unsatisfying to both sides, realizing far more fears than hopes and potentially exhausting a workforce that’s never able to feel balanced.
To break this cycle, we need to achieve something like a dynamic equilibrium that allows for more time in the top half the polarity map (realizing our hopes) and less extreme dips into the bottom half. To do that, we need to identify the early signals and leading indicators that tell us we’re losing balance before we tip into the downside. Finding these early signals is the key to tuning the system for greater balance, increased agility and the creation of a win-win dynamic through an effective both and approach.
In an uncertain world of increasing complexity and interconnectedness (aka our world and our future), polarity thinking is an increasingly valuable, adaptive skill, and once you’re familiar with the concept, you’ll start to see its utility everywhere.
We’re big fans of polarity thinking and mapping at be radical, and if you’d like to go deeper, we’ll be doing an open Learning Exchange on the framework for our community on June 30th @ 8am PST. Sign up now!
I’ll hope to see you there.
Jeffrey and the be radical team
P.S. Interested in exploring how this applies to your organization and your products & services? Find out how be radical can help you. Simply hit reply to this email, tell us a bit about yourself and the opportunity/challenge you face, and we will be in touch.
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