Polarity Management

In the “vertical development” piece I covered a few months back, part of the definition of a “self-transforming” mind was:

We can hold more contradiction and oppositeness in our thinking and no longer feel the need to gravitate towards polarized thinking

Seems like a worthy goal, but how do we get there?

Along comes Patricia Beach and Jennifer Joyce‘s summary of Barry Johnson’s work, to help us out:

Escape from Flatland: Using Polarity Management to Coach Organizational Leaders from a Higher Perspective

Problem – concern that can only be solved by one unique right answer, using either/or thinking.

Polarity – concern that can be managed by focusing on two interdependent, diametrically opposed, right answers, using both/and thinking. Good examples: short-term / long-term, centralization / decentralization, customization / standardization, cost / quality.

Most of our toughest business challenges, especially in the “complex” domain, are polarities that need to be managed, rather than problems that need to be solved. They require us ensure that both opposite resolving answers to the concern receive proper attention. Too much attention to one pole of the polarity, while neglecting the other, will lead to a sub-optimal outcome.

Process for managing polarities well

  • Identify which of your challenges are problems to solve and which are polarities to manage
  • Become well versed in naming the polarities
  • Build a Polarity Map – a simple 2×2 listing the strengths and weaknesses that come from paying attention to each pole of the polarity, aimed at reducing the risk of “throwing the baby with the bath water” by focusing on one pole.


  • Use the Polarity Map to agree on options that bring attention to both sides of the polarity in an appropriate way – this means giving appropriate time and attention to both sides of the polarity, being sensitive to the adverse impact of neglecting one pole for too long. In neutral scenarios, the outcome is often a blend of elements from both sides of the polarity. But it is often the case that the exercise reveals that one side has already been neglected, requiring diverting more attention and focus to it, at least in the short term. In some cases the management approach calls for oscillating between the two poles, recognizing when the down-side of the pole that currently gets attention is becoming noticeable, and shifting attention to the other pole, starting to capture its up-side:



Polarity Management

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