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Both/And Leadership - Are you wasting time trying to resolve the irresolvable?.

Are you wasting time trying to resolve the irresolvable? One of the toughest things a leader has to develop is an awareness that he or she faces two general types of challenges. Firstly there are those that require taking tough timely decisions between a number of different alternatives, often when there is never enough information. But secondly, leaders need ALSO to recognise when the situation is not about choosing between this or that alternative but managing this and that. This is the challenge that can occur in which both sides of an argument can be right.

This second category of challenges is sometimes called managing polarities. Polarity Management was first defined nearly 20 years ago by Barry Johnson as the art of managing ‘mutually interdependent opposites’. Examples of this would include cost vs. quality, individual performance vs. team working; centralisation vs. localisation; even inhaling and exhaling! In each case, overall sustainable performance depends upon achieving success in conflicting activities. They are a critical feature of organisational and business life.

The first trick for leaders is to identify when they are dealing with a polarity. Indicators can include recognising that this particular situation is one in which a focus on one extreme will undermine the ‘greater good’ over time. It can also be spotted when different alternatives offer different sorts of benefit rather than different amounts of the same benefits. Finally a good indicator is that there is a natural oscillation between two positions over time and what seems to be required is a natural management of alternatives. The ebb and flow between stability and change would be a typical example of this.

The next step is to get all constituent parties within a particular challenge to recognise they are involved in polarity management and see the upsides and downsides of both alternatives – quite often one constituency will focus on the upsides of one polarity and only the downside of the other. Or to put it another way; all those involved need to recognise that their understanding of the challenge may be ‘right but not complete’.

With this common understanding, stakeholders will be much more able to develop the metrics and approaches that ensure that both sides of the polarity are managed effectively. Maybe it is a sign of the times; but in my recent work with senior teams, recognising and responding to polarities seems to be becoming more and more urgent.

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