Discover how to simplify the complex without being simplistic, provide stability amidst accelerating change and gain a competitive advantage through Polarity Management

This is the second essay in the series about managing polarities. I recommend you read the first essay first – it covered these areas:

  1. Definition of a polarity 
  2. List of common polarities
  3. Explanation of the difference between a problem and a polarity
  4. The value of polarity or paradox management

In this essay I will describe:

  1. How to get win/win using Andiron’s Polarity Navigator Tool

How To Get Win/Win Using The Polarity Navigator Tool?

“Leaders at all levels too readily see complex issues as problems to solve rather than polarities to leverage. Leaders thus make the issues more complex by invoking solutions that ‘solve’ only one pole of the issue. The shadow of these one-sided solutions eventually comes to the foreground and thus causes downward spiralling and anguish for all involved.” 

David Magellan Horth, Center for Creative Leadership and Idea Connection Systems.

The process I like to use to get the win/win is the Polarity Navigator created by Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis shown below. It’s built on the foundational work of Barry Johnson – thanks Barry. 

There is a five-step process to completing the Polarity Navigator. But before you start, ideally you have brought together the key stakeholders i.e. people who sit in each pole. 

Step One – Pole Names

Ensure both poles are neutral and not biased. For example, rather than name a polarity ‘lazy’ it would be better to say ‘recovery’. Rather than name a polarity ‘headless chicken’’ better to call it ‘active’. So you end up with Recovery::Active rather than Lazy::Headless Chicken.

See the first essay for more examples of polarities.

Don’t name the poles as one of its benefits or oversuses. And make sure you are dealing with one polarity at a time.

Step Two – Benefits and Overuses

Create the benefits for each pole. The benefits are the positive results which come from focusing on that pole. Ideally, have a similar amount of benefits for each pole otherwise it will bias one over the other. 

Then create the overuses which are the negative impacts of over-focusing or having too much of a pole. As for the benefits have a similar number of overuses for each pole and match up the number of benefits to overuses. 

Good questions to ask when creating the benefits/overuses include:

  • What benefits does this pole have on customers/suppliers/team members/other key stakeholders?
  • What impact might too much focus on this pole have on customers/suppliers/team members/other key stakeholders?

It’s important to remember this is not a pros and cons list – there is nothing inherently wrong with big-picture or detail-focused – it’s when you have too much of it that you can create problems.

An overuse or benefit might show up in more than one quadrant on the map. When it does, use ‘because’ to give a full explanation. For example, ‘Slow to act’ might be an overuse for too much Big-picture thinking. With a ‘because’ it could be “Slow to act because you are spending too much time reflecting” while for Detail it could be “Slow to act because of paralysis by analysis.”

Also, using nouns and verbs to describe benefits and overuses is better. For example, instead of ‘listening’ use ‘team members feel heard and respected’.

Step Three – Transformational Third Way

This is the most nuanced and hardest step of the process. The “Third Way” refers to the integration of two opposing poles in a polarity that harnesses the strengths without succumbing to either’s weaknesses. 

The Third Way is not about choosing one pole over the other or finding a compromised middle ground; rather, it’s about transcending the dichotomy to embrace both poles simultaneously. “Riding two horses at the same time.”

Two useful questions to ask are: 

  1. What would you be like to get the benefits of both poles in a particular context?
  2. How would you see the world if you blended X and Y? What mindset would you hold?

When discovering the transformational Third Way you can’t think your way through it as you are trying to capture experience not logic or actions. The Third Way is more from the point of view of human ‘being’ than human ‘doing’ i.e. who we ‘be’ and how we feel when we’re harmonising the two poles. 

To uncover the experience or being you might ask, “If you were doing that, what would you achieve – what state, or impact, would you be trying to make?”

Metaphors and creative/original names can be really helpful. As Emerson and Lewis mention in their book (Navigating Polarities), a great example of finding the Third Way of the Candour::Diplomacy polarity is Kim Scott’s ‘Radical Candor’ – the art of challenging directly and caring personally. 

Step Four – Vulnerability Throughway

Understandably, I have experienced quite a lot of resistance when coaching leaders to find the Third Way. Some feel it’s not possible to get the best of both poles, some can’t let go of their perspective because it’s part of their identity (i.e. “I am a results person”) and others fear the downsides of their less-preferred pole.

The journey to getting the best of both worlds is going against biology as we’re hard-wired to see things in opposition – not surprising as it’s served us well e.g. safety or danger when faced with a sabre-tooth tiger (sideline – what other animals were around back then because the tiger always seems to get a mention?). And it takes us away from what the brain craves – predictability and certainty.

Rather than ignore these fears, it’s best to get curious, bring them to the surface, name them, test their validity and choose the discomfort. Sometimes when you say your assumptions out loud they may not feel quite so real.

Ask questions such as:

  • What feels scary or uncomfortable about holding the Third Way?
  • What’s most at risk if that happens?
  • What part of you needs to shift or expand to hold the Third Way?

Step Five – Strategies

This is the doing bit – it’s the action plan for how you are going to navigate the polarity. You have to act otherwise all this work is wasted. Polarities are complex so try out small experiments, see how they go, learn and iterate if necessary. 

For example, a leader looking to develop their Candor side of the Candor::Diplomacy polarity might say to their team, “I’m working on giving you all open and honest feedback more regularly. This week is the start of my experiment. I’m aiming to give all of you at least two pieces of Radical Candor feedback this week. Let’s reflect on how it goes at our weekly meeting next Monday.”

There will likely be actions you are already doing which bring you into the Third Way. Think about actions you should start, stop, continue or modify. It’s not just about starting new things. 

Some actions will relate to specific benefits of one pole, but that’s fine as long as there are actions for the other pole too and you remember the main goal is to reap the benefits of the interdependent pairs. 

Using Polarity Thinking To Take Your Leadership To The Next Level

In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, the ability to skillfully manage polarities is an indispensable capability for leaders. The traditional either/or approach to problem-solving is no longer sufficient in a landscape where challenges are increasingly paradoxical, requiring a both/and mindset.

Implementing polarity thinking requires a fundamental shift in perspective where you embrace paradox as a source of insight and growth rather than a problem to be solved. It demands a willingness to let go of rigid assumptions, engage in open-minded dialogue and seek to understand diverse viewpoints and uncover synergies.

As leaders embarking on this journey, you must be prepared to confront your own biases and fears, embracing vulnerability as a pathway to personal and professional growth. By courageously exploring the discomfort of holding opposing perspectives, you can unlock new levels of wisdom and insight, ultimately leading your organisations toward more holistic and impactful solutions.