Ten or 15 years ago, leaders would agree on a strategy and focus on it relentlessly. Grow, grow, grow, the mantra might be; don’t get hung up on cost savings or consolidation.

Then the downside of a growth-only focus would start to appear — bloated infrastructure, cost overruns, inefficiencies — and the pendulum would shift the other way. Cut, trim, be efficient.

Today, if you ask the question, Should I focus on growth or efficiency? the answer is likely to be: Yes. Focus on both. And do both well.

This both/and thinking isn’t the stuff of routine management, and it’s making life more complicated for managers up and down the organization. But it stems from the reality that everything isn’t just another problem to solve.

A problem is something that can have a right — or best — answer; a solution exists. But a polarity is a dilemma that is ongoing, unsolvable and contains seemingly opposing ideas. We usually think of them in adversarial terms: growth vs. consolidation; short term vs. long term, innovation vs. efficiency, centralization vs. decentralization, change vs. stability.

Polarities aren’t just about business strategy; they show up in choices about leadership and culture, too. What is the right choice? Empathy or toughness? Keeping control or empowering others? Staying on task or working on the relationship?

It’s easy to see these alternatives as directly opposed and in conflict. But, in truth, polarities are complementary and interdependent, says CCL’s David Dinwoodie.

“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,” he explains.

“The trick isn’t to solve a polarity or to make a choice and move on,” Dinwoodie continues. “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.”

“Think of it like breathing,” he suggests. “Breathing isn’t a choice between inhaling or exhaling. If you inhale to the exclusion of exhaling, the negative results show up quickly. And the reverse is also true. The polarity approach says, we must both inhale and exhale.”

“Managing polarities can also help with unnecessary conflict,” adds CCL’s Laura Quinn. “Many teams incorrectly identify an issue as either/or and have ‘sides’ as a result. Polarities let both sides be right, and the organization wins.”

What does this look like in practical terms?

CCL draws on the work of Barry Johnson, creator of Polarity Thinking, in various leadership programs, including Navigating Change and in customized work with clients. Here are a few ideas to help you and your team better understand and respond to issues that don’t have fixed solutions and address conflicting perspectives and interests:

  • Next time you are wrestling with a challenge or conflict, ask: “Is this a problem to solve or a polarity to deal with?” The conversations and answers will go a long way toward understanding the challenge and finding new approaches or new thinking about it.
  • Identify one or more key polarities that you are facing right now in your business.
    • How are you, and the larger organization, handling it? Where can you change the conversation from either/or to both/and?
    • Stop asking, “Can we have both?” Instead, push for ideas and answers around, “How can we have both?”
  • Make a “polarity map” to help you spot when you are overdoing one pole to the exclusion of the other. Here’s one about Innovation and Efficiency to use as an example:


5 thoughts on “Are You Facing a Problem? Or a Polarity?

  1. Lori Heffelfinger says:

    I love this article and the model but you don’t give credit to the author: Barry Johnson. I think that is really in bad form an organization such as CCL, whom I admire very much. I would quote your article but it looks very similar to a Barry Johnson workshop I attended and it yet it doesn’t include anything about him/his work.

    1. Lauren McSwain-Starrett says:

      Hi Lori, please take another look. This article does mention Barry Johnson and his work! Perhaps you missed it?

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