I went to a fascinating presentation yesterday, given by Cynthia Haddock and organised by AMED. She talked about Polarity Management and her experience of working with it. Here’s a snippet from the Polarity Management website which captures the central point rather well:
Intuitively those of you who have “been around the barn a few times” know that:
Leaders need to be conservative for stability and revolutionary for change.
Organizations need centralized coordination and decentralized initiatives
Managers and employees need training and must do their work.
We need to support team development and reward individual achievement.
We need to reduce our costs and improve quality.
All of us are faced with work commitments and home commitments.
None of the above are problems to solve by choosing one and neglecting the other. They are what we call polarities (dilemmas, paradoxes) which are inherently unavoidable and unsolvable. The on-going, natural tension between the poles can be destructive and debilitating or can be managed, and channeled into a creative synergy that leads to superior outcomes.
Cynthia used a metaphor of breathing to ground the idea of polarity in something very human. We breathe in to solve the “problem” of lack of oxygen; this creates a new “problem” of too much carbon dioxide, so we breathe out, creating the “problem” of lack of oxygen, etc etc. The solution is not to breathe in more or out more, but to do both.
In too many business meetings, we get stuck in arguments metaphorically, arguing about breathing in versus breathing out when a paradoxical solution has more wisdom.
Browsing the site, you’ll find a lot of intelligent points about the virtues of recognising and working with polarities. These have strong echoes for me of what I’ve learnt from psychotherapy training and from working with Improv; that wisdom will often lie in escaping the Either/Or, Binary, Adversarial model that often gets inculcated in our schools.
Of course, taking a polarised position is fun, I know I like to polemicise. But as Jennifer Rice is pointing out in her continuing response to the Guru Red Manifesto, let’s not throw babies out with the bathwater.