Polarity Management: A New Lens for Working Through Challenges

Spring 2018

By Donna Orem

At one time or another, most of us have played the “What Do You See?” game. A picture is flashed before a group of people and they shout out what they see. Generally, some in the group see one image, while others see something entirely different. Some easily see both images, while others struggle to make out more than one.

I think this is an apt metaphor for a challenge leaders face every day—with the same inputs presented, people perceive the same situation very differently. There is a plus side to this, as great decision-making comes from soliciting diverse perspectives. But, bringing those perspectives together in an effective manner can be challenging. There are many good processes out there to help leaders accomplish this, but I believe the technique of polarity management is particularly useful in addressing the complex challenges we face today.

Making the Distinction

I learned about polarity management at a recent NAIS Leadership Through Partnership program for heads and board chairs. During a program segment, created by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), workshop leaders taught how polarity management could be employed to frame and manage issues that heads and boards were addressing together.
A polarity is a dilemma that is on-going, unsolvable, and involves ideas that appear to be opposing. A polarity is distinguished from a problem in that a problem has a best solution, but a polarity is virtually unsolvable; it is a dilemma that needs to be appropriately managed. And, how it is best managed can change over time, as variables affecting the particular challenge evolve. Polarity management involves moving from seeking solutions to challenges—aka “either/or” thinking—to embracing the two “rights” (or poles) that need to be most effectively managed. CCL Vice President David Dinwoodie explains it this way:
“A polarity is a pair of interdependent opposites. If you focus on one of those to the neglect or exclusion of the other, at some point in time, you dip into negative unintended consequences. The trick isn’t to solve a polarity or to make a choice and move on. You handle a polarity by first, recognizing what it is, and second, learning how to mentally and practically move through the ebbs and flows a polarity presents.”
Barry Johnson, one of the foremost thought leaders on polarity management and author of the book Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, notes that in any dilemma there are usually two oppositional forces at play. He labels them as “crusading vs. tradition-bearing forces.” The crusaders are those who see a problem with the status quo and are anxious to move out of that into a new reality. In doing so, they tend to have one-dimensional thinking, focusing only on the upside of the change they are advocating and the downside of the current reality. On the other hand, the tradition bearers see these crusaders as “naive dreamers” and want to preserve what is working well in the present and not march into unknown chaos.
School leaders no doubt can identify many situations in their schools in which the crusader vs. tradition-bearer forces play out. The challenge for the leader is that both forces are coming at the situation as a problem to be solved as opposed to a dilemma to be managed. The reality is that both sides need each other to ensure that the issue is effectively addressed and that the school thrives because of their joint efforts. Too often though, Johnson notes, one side overpowers the other and the result is that you end up “spending unnecessary time in the downside of the winner’s preferred pole.”

Internally Driven vs. Externally Driven

One dilemma that schools face today is the polarity of being internally driven vs. externally driven—that is, when thinking about how a school evolves its program, does a leader approach it by looking at what internal education experts think would make the current program stronger or defer to what the market is seeking?
The tradition-bearers will argue that the school’s program is strong and that school educators are the experts—thus it should continue to focus on what has worked well in the past, not rely on the market to tell it what to do. On the other hand, the crusaders will say that the market is no longer looking for what the school has traditionally offered and leaders need to move in a totally new direction. How can a leader bring the two forces together for the benefit of the school and its community? Johnson suggests these five steps.
1. Identify the polarity: Define the nature of the dilemma and the two poles to be managed.
2. Describe the whole polarity: Create a polarity map and list the upside and downside of both poles.
3. Diagnose the quadrant that the school is in currently.
4. Identify who is crusading and what they are critical of and who is tradition-bearing and what they are afraid of losing.
5. Predict or do some scenario-building: Identify from where will the greatest resistance come and what will be the result for the school if one force triumphs over the other.
Prescribe guidelines for action—bring the groups together to refine the polarity map, discuss the consequences of falling into the downside of either polarity, and agree on guidelines for how the two forces will discuss and address the challenge.
After the polarity map is refined and agreed to by all, developing guidelines for how both forces will communicate with each other in sorting out how to best manage the dilemma is key. For example, crusaders need to acknowledge the valid concerns of tradition-bearers by using language such as, “I know you think our current program is the key to our students’ success. I do too, and I don’t want to lose that, but I also don’t want to lose sight of what our market is telling us. Let’s find a way to keep doing what we do best while evolving those elements that address market concerns.”
Once leaders get tradition-bearers and crusaders to acknowledge the pros and cons of both ends of the poles, you can move toward a dialogue on how to remain in the upside of both poles. CCL suggests that you also may want to discuss early warning signs that would indicate that you are dipping into the negative end of a pole so that you can readjust.
New challenges for schools are emerging at a dizzying pace today and old solutions may not be up to the job of addressing these complex challenges. Polarity management can offer a new lens through which to work through challenges, while at the same time uniting seemingly unmovable forces in the school community toward progress.
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.