Paradoxical Change and Getting Unstuck

A polarity lens on change

“The Paradoxical Theory of Change. … change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not… By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.”

This quote by Arnold Beisser opens up the core chapter on change and transformation in Barry Johnson’s new book “And — Making a difference by leveraging polarity, paradox or dilemma.” I first came across the concept of Polarity Management 4 years ago and it’s become one of the foundational tools in my mental toolbox ever since, when I’m mindful enough to notice that the situation I’m trying to navigate is actually a both/and rather than an either/or dynamic. 

I won’t cover the basics of polarity management in this post. There are several good overviews of it available elsewhere, including my older post. “And” introduces several polarity archetypes: meta-polarities or polarity patterns, if you will, that aggregate together typical dynamics shared by a large set of specific polarities. This post will cover one such archetype/pattern shared by all polarities that, at their core, have to do with the tension between “continuity” and “transformation”. Other labels often used to describe this tension include: being/becoming, expansive/focused, traditional/innovative, familiar/new, stability/change. 

The core polarity is captured in this polarity map: 

Source: “And”

On the one hand, there is a force attempting to Transform the situation. It is moving from “Missing” something valued, which is seen as a problem (-B), to “Going After” that which is “Missing,” which is a vision for a preferred future (+C).  

On the other hand, there is a force for Continuity. It is moving from avoiding the loss of something valued (-D) to “Holding On” to it with great pride (+A). 

Since traditional approaches to change view transformation as solving a problem, when the change effort encounters resistance, they suggest looking for ways to overcome or get around it. To get everyone “aligned” to move in the desired direction. The polarity lens clearly shows that this approach will likely make matters worse in the long-run: extend the time and effort it would take to reach the desired upside, and make it inherently unsustainable and likely to be reversed at a later date. 

Failing to notice and manage the polarity leads to getting hooked and stuck: 

Source: “And”
  • Hooked: The more powerfully we value something from our past (+A), the more powerfully we are afraid of losing it (-D).
  • Stuck: The hook (+A/-D) becomes a wall that blocks the natural flow of the force that knows something is missing (-B) and wants a transformation by going after it (+C). This leaves the system stuck in the downside of Continuity. 

Alternative approaches orient differently toward resistance. Resistance is viewed as a resource that can be included in the process of making the transformation. The assumption is that there is wisdom in the resistance. Combining the energy of “going after” and “holding on” is likely to accelerate the pace at which the desired upside will be obtained and will make this destination more stable and long-lasting in the long-run. When we experience the downside of the pole towards which we were moving, it is recognized as the natural flow between the two poles. An early warning sign that some self-correction is necessary, not an indication that the direction is inherently wrong.

Managing the polarity well, can help the system get unstuck, following a 5-step process: 

Source: “And”
  1. Seek what value is being held (+A). Listen to those who are resisting the move towards what we are “Going After” (+C). Affirm the value to which they are “Holding On” (+A). 
  2. The affirmation transforms the wall into a bridge to the fear of losing what is valued (-D). Listen to and respect the legitimate fear of losing what is valued. 
  3. After identifying the resistor’s point of view (+A/-D) ask the question: “How might we (those holding on and those going after) gain what we are “going after”…
  4. .. without letting go of what the resistors value…
  5. … in order to move towards a Greater Purpose that works for both groups?”

The response to this question is the last step in the general SMALL (Seeing, Mapping, Assessing, Learning, Leveraging) process, synthesizing the insights of managing the polarity by:

  • Identifying “Action Steps” that will allow us to capture the upside of the two poles. 
  • Identifying “Early Warnings” that we’re getting too close to one of the poles and its downside is becoming noticeable. 

In another favorite book of mine, Mastering Leadership, Anderson & Adams describe Integral Leadership as follows: 

“This ability to hold opposites, conflict, tension and polarity, without avoiding them, oversimplifying them, or resorting to quick fixes, is the hallmark of this leadership… the ability to see and hold the whole system…with both fierce commitment to transformation and with compassion for what is.

The approach outlined above offers a tangible way to make progress in that compelling journey. 

Paradoxical Change and Getting Unstuck

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