You can drive yourself crazy trying to manage persistent, seemingly unsolvable “wicked problems” until you realize what they are. They’re called polarities. You’ll recognize them because you’ll be frustrated when the same “problems” keep resurfacing, and no matter what you do, you can never permanently fix them. For example, supply/demand is a polarity. It’s very rare for us as business owners to have the perfect balance between the two. And if we treat this like a problem to solve, we’ll be in a state of constant frustration because it can’t be “solved” in the traditional sense. It can just be managed.

Supply and Demand

You want more clients (demand), and when you have them, you need better systems and often more staff. If you decide to invest in systems and staff in advance, you can be frustrated if the demand is slow to arrive and you end up paying for excess capacity. I’ve seen many business owners conclude they made a mistake. While they wait for the increased demand, they conclude they made a bad decision by ramping up in advance. Yet if you have more clients than systems and staff, then you can’t fulfill the increased demand, and clients may go elsewhere. This is a polarity because it requires ongoing rebalancing; there is no one permanent solution.

Examples of Polarities

Once you learn to recognize polarities, you move from “either/or” to the more leading-edge world of “both/and.” Common business polarities are:

  • structure/flexibility
  • strategy/execution
  • individual/team
  • price/quality
  • competition/collaboration

Before I understood the concept of polarity, I was stumped when I read bestselling business books that said opposite things. It was hard to know which one was most important. “Strategy First!” “Execute or Die!” Like most achievers, I wanted to do it “right,” and I desperately wanted to figure out what that “right” was! I would charge full force into one new approach after another, abandoning the one before it, not realizing that there is no “one” right way. Polarities are more like music than an equation. There is an ebb and flow, a melody and a rhythm, the verse and the refrain. Both are needed in order for the other to exist. Neither is wrong.

I was exposed to the polarity work of Barry Johnson, Ph.D., while at Georgetown University and have incorporated what I learned into a polarity matrix tool. This is a great tool for dealing with the complexity of our business and life when there is no permanent solution. Picture polarity pairs connected as part of an infinity symbol. When you look at polarities through this lens, you can see where you are and what to do next. It illustrates the nature of an ongoing loop that flows up and down, right and left. Let’s look at a simple example with relationships:

Benefits and Downsides

In any healthy relationship, there is give and take. We balance our needs with those of the other person. Follow the direction of the arrows on this image and see that the downside of focusing only on ourselves is we may be lonely. The solution is to focus more time on others, and the downside of that is we may be resentful because we have no time for ourselves. There is no one right way. It’s a polarity to manage. You know it’s time to move to the next benefit quadrant when you experience the downside. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong – the key is to just be aware that when you experience the downside, make a change in the direction of the arrow to the benefits quadrant.

Using this structure, you can identify where you are (which aspect of the polarity is present) and what to do if you are in the downside. The value of the polarity matrix is seeing the full situation clearly so you can understand and reconcile the tradeoffs you make. You can identify the action steps to generate the positive benefits and recognize the early warning signs that alert you to negative consequences.

A common polarity for business owners of services companies is structure/flexibility. You want to structure processes and systems in order to become more efficient and grow. With standard processes, it’s easier to train new staff, reduce costs and ensure quality. At the same time, you may want to be flexible enough to accommodate clients with different needs or priorities.

How to Use the Polarity Matrix:

  1. Identify the high-level goal clearly (Serve Clients/Grow Company)
  2. Fill in the polarity pair first (Flexibility/Structure)
  3. List the benefits of each side of the polarity
  4. Identify the fear which is the opposite of the goal
  5. List the downsides for each polarity when it is out of balance
  6. Take action to create the positive benefits of the opposite polarity

Two Sides of a Coin

Before I transitioned my company to scalable solutions and product models, we spent many years as a services business. Using this polarity matrix made it possible to see the direction we needed to move whenever we experienced the downside of structure or the downside of flexibility. I began to see them as two sides of a coin.

Once you create a polarity matrix, you can refer to it when you need to balance a polarity. When you understand and anticipate polarities, you’ll be able to see that many business “problems” are just cycles. Instead of being a wicked problem to solve, they are polarities to manage.