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Polarities and Problems

We as human beings do love a problem. We love to solve things and secretly hope that every difficult thing can be packaged up into a neat elegant solution to enable us to move on to the next problem.

A few weeks back I had a client who was stuck. More stuck than he had ever been before. As he explained an increasing number of problems that he needed to solve, I noticed a pattern. Many of these individual issues were in fact not problems that needed to be solved, but polarities to be recognised and balanced.

What's the problem?

A problem is something which by definition has a solution. The assumption is, that if we just think hard enough then an idea will pop into our head and we will be able to get everything sorted. Of course, there are numerous problems that we encounter each day which do indeed have an answer. Hopefully, we're resourceful enough on that day to come up with a good answer... But there are many times when despite our very best thinking we're encountering a dilemma that is ongoing, unsolvable and paradoxically contains seemingly opposing ideas.

Polarising World

A polarity is where there are two ideas that are different, but complimentary and interdependent. I asked some of my connections on Twitter and LinkedIn to call out some of the polarities that they're seeing in their work:

It is typical for a polarity to nudge you into 'both/and' thinking whereas a problem forces you into the more binary camps of 'either/or'. As you can see from the above, most of these require balance. Both sides have their positives and if you were to pursue one dogmatically, there is likely to be unintended consequence not matter how virtuous your intent.

Polarity Mapping

In knowing that polarities are not there to be solved, but instead to be balanced, we can start to think very differently about what we need to do.

Step 1 - Decide on the polarity you want to map

Placing your 'poles' at the centre of your thinking keeps you focussed. For a nice simple one, I've used Task vs People focus.

In the + boxes, we would include details about the benefits of each pole. When it's really good, what's happening here?

In the - boxes, we would include details about the unintended consequences if we were to focus on this pole to the exclusion of the other. ie, if we only focussed on people and ignored task.

Step 2: Populate the grid

By populating the grid with characteristics we would likely observe, we gain insight on how the the situation would evolve over time. By doing this activity with other team members, it is easy for everyone to gain perspective of the full spectrum of possibilities. Being explicit with the benefits and unintended consequences helps to reconcile people who may have sided more enthusiastically with one school of thought or pole. The infinity symbol I've placed in the middle is there to show this is a constant ebb and flow between Task and People.

Step 3: Designing actions to maintain balance

The final stage is to turn the reflections into action!

Starting with the positive, you can list all of the actions you might take in order to either achieve or maintain success in either Task or People (or whatever poles you have chosen). Make sure it is clear who would be responsible for the action and when it would need to be done.

Following this, you can identify the warning signs that would indicate when you're drifting into the unintended consequences of neglecting attention to either pole. Ideally, this would be things you could measure and report on regularly so a shifting emphasis can be leveraged as quickly as possible.

A big thanks to those who offered ideas for the polarities:

  • Dale Maskell, CEO - Age UK Cheshire

  • Ruth Richards, Exec Coach - Ruth Richards Coaching

  • Clare Martin, Director of Talent - MiQ Digital

  • Lynn Scott, Exec Coach - Lynn Scott Coaching

  • Mike Evans, CEO, EFL Trust

  • Claire Bradshaw, Exec Coach - Claire Bradshaw Associates

  • Sarah Gosling, MD, Gosling Consulting

  • Clare Winter, Exec Coach - Celox Coaching

As always, thanks for reading!

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