The Power & Practice of Polarity Thinking

radical Briefing #0024


Many of the most intractable and chronic issues facing leaders and decision makers feel so intractable and challenging precisely because they resist the modes of thinking and the problem-solving tools that we most readily deploy. One class of these issues consists of the complex set of unsolvable problems that the organizational/systems thinker Barry Johnson described as polarities. (This is a quick intro to the concept, but Johnson’s original work is very much worth exploring in depth.)

Polarities exist where you find two interrelated values or desirable outcomes in tension.

  • Should the product team focus on speed or quality?
  • Should my startup prioritize growth or profitability?
  • Should I focus on building my career success or enjoying life outside of work?

For each of these, the answer is likely (often maddeningly): Yes. Do both. Preferably do both well at the same time. Maintain the Core of the business while also driving innovation at the Edge (a polarity we touched on in Briefing #0023). Deliver on Short-term Results while developing your Long-term Vision.

When faced with a genuine polarity, we see value on both sides, and this is why the either/or approach that we tend to favor in decision-making environments fails. The polarity requires us to recognize both values and hold them in balance with a both and approach. And that balance is difficult to achieve and even more difficult to sustain because it is dynamic by definition. The two values you are balancing are in tension, and polarities exist not as problems to be solved but as tensions to be managed.

Learning to think in terms of and effectively navigate these tensions only becomes more valuable as the systems and issues involved increase in complexity, diversity, rate of change & resistance to change.

To illustrate with a particularly fraught example of the moment: Consider the sensitive balance in the society-level polarity where we currently have the critical public health goal of maintaining a low level of Covid-19 transmission on one side and the deeply felt economic imperative of keeping people employed and getting businesses open on the other. Both are highly valued and ultimately necessary, and the pursuit of one side necessarily affects how we treat the other side. That is a real tension—and a complex problem that doesn’t admit to a solution or even an optimal position that is likely to hold over time.

So… how are we to reconcile, manage or move forward?

The practice of polarity mapping offers a way of deepening our understanding and radically improving our ability to navigate these dynamics, and the framework itself, while powerful, is easy to pick up and apply.

We start with our old friend the 2x2 matrix and place the values in tension at the poles on either end of the horizontal axis. We designate the top and bottom quadrants for our Hopes and Fears, respectively.

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.

radically yours,

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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