Using Polarities in Problem Solving: “AND” not “OR” Thinking!

How many times do you find yourself in a situation where your perspective is completely opposite of another’s? As we take today to celebrate Martin Luther King, I’m reminded of how the civil rights movement was wrought with polarities of perspectives.  We see it played out in politics, social issues and personally, I know it happens between my teenage son and me. At work, we typically uncover the diametrically-opposed opinions when we are faced with a problem/issue to be solved which impacts various parties.

Last fall I heard a group from Polarity Partnerships speak at the National OD Network conference and learned how we can use polarities to solve all kinds of issues. In the session, they defined Polarities as “interdependent pairs that support a common purpose and one another. They are energy systems in which we live and work.” An easy to understand example is the Polarity of Activity and Rest. Both are needed to support a healthy lifestyle. Get enough rest and you’ll have the energy to be active. But without enough activity it’s hard to get a good night’s rest. When you do both, you’ll be healthier. Ignore one and you’ll be out of balance and unhealthy.

In business, we are faced with decisions like: Centralize vs. De-centralize; Expand Recruiting Efforts vs. Hiring Freeze; Cost vs. Quality; Transform vs. Maintain Steady State.  If the goal is to set up the organization for future success, both are needed in some form or fashion over time. It’s not an either/or scenario. Therefore, it’s helpful to take an “AND” mindset in our problem solving approach.

Here’s how it can work:

Let’s take the example of Transform vs. Steady State:

  • Step 1 – Brainstorm a list of negative results from over-focusing on maintaining Steady State and neglecting Transformation.  It may be things like: static environment, decrease in innovation, reduced market relevance, people get bored and lose engagement, people are not being developed through new experiences.
  • Step 2: Brainstorm the benefits of Transformation.  Items such as: increase agility in meeting market demands, improved innovation, people engaged by the content of their work, increased creativity.
  • Step 3: Brainstorm the positive results of pursuing Steady State. This may include: people feel secure and confident in their job knowledge, performance expectations are really clear, job performance competence increases, planning is easier, people have a good historic perspective and can apply lessons learned.
  • Step 4: You guessed it – Brainstorm the negative results of Transformation to the neglect of Steady State. It could be things like: move too quickly without proper change management practices in place, increase risk due to many unknowns, the rules of the game have changed – people don’t know what is expected, people leave their roles without proper transition, fatigue, confusion, chaos, increase inefficiencies.
  • Step 5: Now have the group think about how to gain/maintain the positive results from focusing each of the poles by answering the questions: What? Who? By When? Measures?  This is where to really begin using your “AND” thinking to get to a balanced vs. “all -or-nothing” decision. Perhaps only certain functions to begin a transformation process or take a phased approach so that the organization is not taking on more change than can be managed effectively. The idea is to keep the best of the positive results from both scenarios.
  • Step 6: Finally, talk through the measurable indicators that will let you know when you are getting into the downside of each pole. This is where you may go back to your list of negative results and determine which ones can be clearly measured and define specific measurement benchmarks.  This could be turnover numbers, or pulse surveys used periodically to check in on how people are doing that are impacted by the decision, market share numbers, new product pipeline, etc. …

For a more concrete example, you can find a case study from Polarity Partners website.

The best way to deal with ambiguity that arise in these types of situations is through constant communication. Focus energies on realizing the benefits of the upsides of both scenarios and truly seek to understand another’s perspective so that a balanced decision can be made. Come to agreement about indicators to know when the actions of our decisions are negatively impacting the organization so you know when to pull back, re-evaluate and regroup on your action plan.

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect with her via email at