“Life is strong and fragile. It’s a paradox… It’s both things, like quantum physics: It’s a particle and a wave at the same time. It all exists all together.” – Joan Jett
It’s likely that somewhere along the way, you’ve explored the difference between “yes, and” and “yes, but.” And, if you’re like me, you’ve found the difference to be striking. The word “and” is one of the most powerful words in our vocabulary. It opens up the possibility of more than one answer, more than one direction, more than one perspective. When you say “and” and mean it, you are giving credence to the idea you just heard—you’re building on it rather than dismissing it. If you are going to tackle issues and challenges that are complex (and you are!) the capacity to hold more than one perspective is one of the most powerful attributes you will need.
Taking the idea of “and” further is what this post is all about. I’ll do that by introducing polarity management, which is currently both my favorite coaching and consulting tool, and a way of thinking that has helped me to navigate challenges. Barry Johnson is the thought-leader who first introduced polarity management back in about 1975. His book, Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems is an accessible and powerful introduction to this body of work.
Like many powerful ideas, you might be surprised by the simplicity of polarity management. At the core, it’s about the shift from “either/or” to “both/and” thinking. Here’s how Barry Johnson defines polarities: “Polarities to manage are sets of opposites that can’t function well independently. Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a “solution” and neglect the other. The objective of the polarity management perspective is to get the best of both opposites while avoiding the limits of each.”
Let’s unpack that with an example:
We often watch organizations swing between centralization and decentralization—one of the two being seen as “the problem.” What if we stopped and asked, “how do we bring to bear the value of centralization and the value of decentralization?” What are the benefits of each that we want to be sure we embrace, and what are the downsides of each that we want to avoid as a result of over-focusing on one side of the pole? We could stop the pendulum swing from pole to pole and create a more sustainable way to think about our organizations.
Keep in mind that there isn’t ever a perfect balance. We’re always managing two dynamic poles that are often shifting, and are always both relevant and important.
Let’s also look at a personal example, one that is close to my heart and that of other women leaders I work with. Humility and confidence. For reasons that probably lie deep in my childhood, it’s been hard for me not see it as one or the other. So, when I get too confident, I’m afraid that I’m not being humble enough—in fact, my fear is that I’m entering the territory of arrogance and I was taught never to go there. So, I swing back to humility and abandon the confidence that I definitely need to thrive in my work and in building my business. And the pattern repeats. After learning about polarity management I was able to shift my thinking and see that I could embrace both—they are not mutually exclusive. When I sense that I’m shifting towards one pole, I can catch myself and self-correct. I can embrace the possibility of and.
Polarities are a powerful tool in helping us get unstuck when we face personal and professional challenges. When things are out of sync, we can work on both, rather than running from one pole to another. Attention to work and attention to family, creating more structure and remaining flexible, listening well and advocating for our positions. Similarly, organizations can use polarity management when struggling with things like growth and profit, short-term focus and long-term focus, reducing cost and improving quality.
Johnson and his team have developed a process for mapping polarities that provides a roadmap to effectively leverage the power of both. That mapping process is outlined in his book. I’ve used this frequently with clients—individuals and organizations—and it almost always results in some significant “ahas.” It’s a great tool to add to any strategic planning effort.
Again, in the words of Barry Johnson: “There is a natural tension between the two poles of a polarity. If you treat a polarity as if it were a problem to solve, this natural tension becomes a vicious cycle leading to unnecessary dysfunction, pain and suffering. However, if you can see that an issue is a polarity, you can leverage that natural tension with and thinking so it becomes a virtuous cycle lifting you and your organization to goals unattainable with or thinking alone.”
So, the next time you feel challenged and frustrated, take a step back and ask yourself if what you or your organization is facing is a problem to be solved or a polarity to be managed. If it’s the latter, a polarity perspective might offer a new way to tackle a seemingly impossible issue.