HYCS #47 – Is it a problem to solve or a polarity to leverage?

HYCS #47 – Is it a problem to solve or a polarity to leverage?

It’s fun, rewarding and satisfying to solve problems for your clients.  But what about those problems that won’t stay solved?  What about those problems that become entrenched, ugly turf wars?  For those, polarity mapping is much more useful.

Is it a problem or a polarity?

Breathing is a polarity.  You inhale and you exhale.  You need to do both to survive.  Thinking of your need to exhale as a problem is silly.  The polarity of breathing is a fact, one that can’t be solved, stopped, destroyed or avoided.  It simply is.

The polarity of rest and exercise is another unavoidable, enduring, unsolvable polarity.  Too much rest and you lose conditioning and health; too much exercise and you become tired and prone to injury.  Like all polarities, you need to do both, and doing one makes it impossible to do the other.

But it’s a balance, right?

Not at all.   Blending poles looking for a compromise or balance means missing out on the upside of each pole.  The positive side of each pole needs to be fully experienced.  With breathing, you’re better off inhaling and exhaling fully rather than focusing on striking a balance by speeding up or alternating quickly.

Shallow or rapid breathing is not a solution because the need to inhale and exhale is not a problem.  Problems respond well to compromise; polarities don’t.  Polarities oscillate.  An oscillation is a natural movement from pole to pole.

Polarities are everywhere

In his book, Polarity Management, Dr. Barry Johnson says polarities hide in:

  • Complexity
  • Change
  • Conflict
  • Chronic Issues
  • Cross-cultural issues

I bet you’ve got a few of these lying around your organization.

The Three Polarity Management Steps

These are not rocket science, but they do stretch your brain into new shapes.

1. Recognize it’s a polarity, not a problem.  If you’re not sure:

2. Map it.  This means to identify the upside and downside of each pole.

Here’s the polarity from last week’s lesson:



As you can see, the opposite of the upside of one polarity is the downside of the other polarity.  That’s why Dr. Johnson calls polarities energy systems.  As you single-mindedly pursue the upside of only one pole you will experience more and more of its downside.  This downside will propel you into the upside of the opposite pole.  As you pursue the upside of that pole, you’ll experience more and more of its downside which will propel you back to the original pole.

So many managers and executives have run afoul of this principle.  And so many are still running afoul of it.

3. Leverage the Polarity

When you leverage a polarity, you find a way to welcome both poles while knowing you can only pursue one pole at a time.  As you pursue one pole, you watch for the early warning signs of its downside so you can switch to the other pole, just the way you pay attention to your body when you exercise, watching for signs you need to rest.  Your goal is to get the best of each pole and experience as little of the downside as possible.  Done well, it’s fluid and graceful, just like breathing.

 Treating People Like They are Adults

My favorite part about polarities is the way they normalize reality.  We are all adults.  We all know that for every up there is a down, that saying yes to one pole – or one department’s point of view – means saying no to the other one.  It’s uncommon common sense.

It’s liberating to have these conversations in organizations, and it’s rare to have them without a consultant’s help.  Problem-solving is almost a religion in most organizations.  It’s certainly a lucrative industry in the consulting world.  It’s worth asking if problem-solving is what you need.

When a problem seems unsolvable, unstoppable, unavoidable, and indestructible, it’s probably a polarity.  Looking at the polarities that are bedeviling your clients is such a merciful approach to the dilemma of being human.  Because being human isn’t a problem that needs solving either.


Map a polarity you face and email it to me before our next monthly call.  We can work on the steps you take to leverage it.