Polarity Series #1: Do You Have a Problem or a Wicked Problem?

Peruse any number of job postings or Google the skills that employers seek in new recruits and chances are good that problem-solving will be mentioned. Often problem-solving is mentioned alongside related terms such as critical thinking, innovation, creativity and conflict resolution. The trouble with focusing on problem-solving is that not every challenge one encounters in the workplace is a problem to be solved.

We’ve been conditioned to view many situations and disputes as having one preferred or desired solution. Over-worked and exhausted? You need some down time or a vacation. Too candid and forthright with your ideas and opinions? Time to learn some diplomacy. A lack of coordination and cooperation between regional offices? Centralize key functions at head office.

Initially, the identified solution seems to work. For a while that is. And then other problems surface a few months down the road or people start complaining that the pendulum has ‘swung too far’ in the other direction. Sound familiar? That’s because you thought you were solving a problem when really you needed to manage a polarity. 

Look back at the image accompanying this post. What do you see? Some of you see the profile of an old woman. Others see the profile of a young woman. And many of you have learned to see both.

The ability to see the same image differently comes down to a subtle shift in what you choose to focus on and how you interpret that data.

This ability to shift your perspective will be invaluable when you begin to apply polarity thinking to the complex issues you face in the workplace. Let’s see if we can use this insight to distinguish between a problem and a polarity.

Johnson describes polarities as interdependent value pairs that support a common purpose and one another. They are considered the natural energy systems in which we live and work. Polarities have also been called dilemmas, paradoxes  tensions and wicked, complex or unsolvable problems. Some common polarities are: activity and rest; work and life balance; candor and diplomacy; strategy and operations; centralization and decentralization. So, how can we tell if we have a problem to solve or a polarity to manage?

Problems to solve are:

  1. Not ongoing – there is an end-point.
  2. Solvable.
  3. Independent, mutually exclusive options that lead to an EITHER-OR outcome.
  4. There is no need to include the alternative option for the solution to work over time.

 Polarities to manage are:

  1. Ongoing – there is no end-point.
  2. Not Solvable.
  3. Interdependent, mutually inclusive options that require a BOTH AND outcome.
  4. The alternatives must be managed together to optimize the situation over time.

The best way to determine if you have a problem to solve or a polarity to manage is to ASK FOUR QUESTIONS:

  1. Is the difficulty ongoing, like breathing?
  2. Are the alternatives interdependent?
  3. Are there two or more necessary upsides?
  4. Will over-focusing on one alternative undermine success over time?

The more “yes” responses you have, the more likely it is that you have a polarity to manage and not a problem to solve.

Let’s try a few examples. Using the four questions outlined above, see if you can identify which of the following are problems and which ones are polarities:

  1. Where shall we go for lunch – the Pig and Whistle or the Nostalgic Noodle?
  2. We need to address our silo-thinking. Let’s create an integrated strategy team.
  3. Our business is expanding into world markets. How do we get our people to think globally?
  4. Should we merge with ‘Mega-Corp’?

Hint: two are problems to solve and two are polarities to manage. When you think you’ve got it, continue reading.

If you thought A. and D. were problems to solve, and B. and C. were polarities to manage, congratulations! You’ve quickly grasped the key differences between a problem and a polarity. If you arrived at a different conclusion, fear not. It can take a bit of practice thinking through the screening questions and identifying the distinction between an ‘either-or’ problem and a “both-and” polarity situation. There are times when context will influence your assessment.

Keep at it. With practice you’ll be able to spot problems and polarities as easily as seeing both the old and the young woman in the image accompanying this post. Of course, knowing you have a polarity to manage will only be valuable if you know how to help others shift their mindset from ‘either/or’ to ‘both and’ thinking. So, my next few posts will focus on describing the steps that will help you learn to manage polarities more effectively in the workplace and at home.

Which of the four examples did you find easy to identify? Which one did you have trouble with and why?


Note: The content for this post and the others in the Polarity Thinking Series was drawn from Barry Johnson’s book Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems by Johnson Ph.D., Barry (2014) Paperback and workshop materials developed by Polarity Partnerships. I completed the Foundations in Polarity Thinking training program in 2011 and deliver a one-day introductory workshop on Polarity Thinking to organizations seeking to deal with complex problems and dilemmas in a more strategic and effective way. For additional information and a short video series on Polarity Management, visit Polarity Partnerships.


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