Differing Viewpoints and Unsolvable Problems
“The bad news about life is that we all face a number of unsolvable problems. However – The good news is that we can, in many cases, stop trying to solve and begin to manage them by holding two conflicting concepts in mind. This is an essential part of the leadership mind.”
-Barry Johnson, Ph.D.
It is easier to see through another’s eyes and understand her world view if you agree with her. But how do you learn to understand and appreciate another person’s perspective if you don’t agree with it? I use a technique called Polarity Management which was developed by Barry Johnson to help groups understand how to shift from “Either/Or” thinking to “Both/And” thinking. When there is no “easy answer” to a problem, it is often because you are facing two different poles of the issue. Neither one is always the “right” answer, you need both.
Let’s take a simple example: Structure vs. Flexibility. What’s the up-side of having structure in an organization? With structure, you have clear guidelines, goals, and consistency in how things get done. What happens when the focus is solely on structure? The organization and its processes become rigid or impractical, and innovation may be stifled.
Let’s look at the opposite. What’s the up-side of having flexibility in an organization? The organization can respond rapidly to changes in the environment and is able to innovate easily. What happens when the focus is on flexibility to the exclusion of structure? Ambiguity, lack of direction, processes that can’t be repeated, or poor follow-through.
The reality is that healthy organizations move back and forth between these two poles. Polarities need to be managed – a wise leader identifies and understands which polarities are pertinent at any point in time and helps her organization to monitor them for balance, so that the organization discerns when to move more toward one pole or another. Other examples of polarities include: centralized and decentralized organization structure, stability and change, outsource and in-source, customer service and profitability, top-down and bottom-up. Can you see that both sides of each polarity are needed, depending on the context?
Team Process – Polarity Management
I have successfully used an adaptation of the polarity management process during some very tense moments with teams to help them work through an issue. If you are not a neutral party to the issue, I recommend that you have a professional facilitator come in to facilitate this process.
Pick a pair of polarities with which your team is currently finding tension. It may be that you need to make a decision or you wish to help the group move from either/or thinking to both/and thinking so new possibilities and solutions emerge. Allow 90 minutes to 2 hours for the process.
- Draw two axes on a large whiteboard
- Put the name of each pole on the left and the right side of the horizontal axis
- Have 2 flip charts available. Write the following at the top of 1 flip chart: “Patterns and Similarities.” Write at “Novel Ideas” at the top of the second flip chart.
- Have 4 different colors of square post-it notes ready
- Give each person a small stack of post-its of the same color
- Ask everyone to write down the “up side” of the pole on the left, in silence for 3 minutes
- Repeat the process with a new color of post-it. Each person writes the “down side” of the first pole.
- Have everyone post their up-sides above the horizontal line to the left of the vertical line, without discussion.
- Next, each person posts their down-sides below the horizontal line to the left of the vertical line.
- Repeat the process again for the pole on the right side of the horizontal line with new colors of post-it notes.
- Once all of the up and down sides have been posted for each pole, have someone read the post it notes out loud to the group.
- Ask the group to identify patterns and similarities. Write them on a flip chart page.
- Ask the group to identify novel ideas or comments for the up-side. Write them on a second flip chart page.
- Take a 5-minute stretch break, walk around, get coffee and encourage people to look at the post it notes and the flip chart pages.
- Review the flip chart pages. Take time to reflect on the ideas that have emerged.
- Open it up to a group discussion. What group conclusions emerge at this point? What new solutions and ideas have come up? What are the next steps? It is especially important to end with some concrete next steps so the group feels a sense of completion and forward momentum.