I’ve written previously about Sustrana which has lovingly put everything leaders need to know to run corporate social responsibility projects in one place. Polarities Partnerships has done something similar in taking one of the most important ideas in management, polarities, and revitalizing it with some simple technology.
The core idea of polarities was outlined in Barry Johnson’s 1996 book Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. The roots of the insight go as far back in human thought as you care to look. In essence, the inevitable dilemma of management (and life) is that if we strive for one pole of a concept such as “provide clarity” we end up with its dark side of “rigidity.” Attempting to escape the problems of rigidity, we flee to the other pole “flexibility,” which works for a while until we start finding employees complaining there’s too much ambiguity.
The polarity principle is a solution to this dynamic; it puts both aspects of an interdependent pair of ideas on the page together so that people can see how they are intertwined. When you understand how both poles link together (e.g. flexibility and clarity) you can move toward getting the positive aspects of both, while avoiding each pole’s dark side.
Let me say again that this is one of the most important insights in management. Good managers have probably discovered some version of it for themselves, but it is far from commonly practiced. Look at your competency models or values statements — they are probably all unipolar.
Why hasn’t this essential insight been put into regular practice? I suspect it is just a bit too hard for most people to handle without support. Just like our short term memory can only deal with a small number of facts at a time, so too our ability to routinely see an issue from both polarities probably exceeds our everyday cognitive ability.
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Polarity Partnerships’ website aims to lessen the cognitive load by providing a large editable library of polarities that cuts back on the time and mental effort required to apply polarity thinking to work. Trying to see the world in terms of polarities takes practice, but once someone puts up a slide of nicely crafted polarity map then the dynamics are fairly obvious. It may be the learning aid we need to get over the hurdle of applying this concept in our organizations.
What is interesting?
An idea that has long resonated with management thinkers, but never got widespread traction, is getting new life thanks to a simple application of technology.
What’s really important?
Human’s often don’t have the cognitive ability to deal with the complexity of the world even when an effective approach to dealing with that complexity is known. All kinds of tools from alphabetical filing cabinets to logarithm tables to polarity maps help make us smarter (see Don Norman’s Things That Make Us Smart). Technology can continue to provide support for us to be smarter, and one day that may see us actually applying the most important ideas in management, not just vaguely remembering that they exist.