The Polarity Framework: Solve Problems, Manage Dilemmas


Polarity Framework

“It is the stretched soul that makes music, and souls are stretched by the pull of opposite bents, tastes, yearnings, loyalties.” — Eric Hoffer

Why is it that some problems never seem to go away?  Maybe they aren’t problems to be solved, but, instead, are dilemmas to be managed.

That’s where the Polarity Framework comes into play.

I was taking a work-life balance workshop, where Bruce Leamon introduced me to the Polarity Framework.

Dr. Barry Johnson developed the method of polarity management as a way to deal with complex problem situations by looking at the whole picture.  The big idea behind the polarity management is that rather solve a problem and move on, you manage the dilemma.  The dilemma comes from the tension between two ends of the spectrum, or two competing polar opposites, that are interdependent.  With the Polarity Framework, you identify the strengths and weaknesses of the two poles, and then focus on the strengths.

Work-life balance is a great example of a dilemma.  You don’t solve it and it’s done.  Instead, you balance the tension between working and not working, by recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of both, as well as their ups and downs.

Life’s not static.  It’s dynamic.  It’s why the pendulum swings.   It’s this swinging pendulum that creates the dilemma.

You Manage the Dilemma

You solve problems, but you manage the dilemmas you face at work and in life.

Problems are not ongoing things.  They are solvable.  They tend to have alternatives or mutually exclusive options.

Polarities are ongoing.   The polarities need to be managed together to optimize the situation.

If you constantly treat a dilemma like a problem, you’ll frustrate yourself, chasing one problem to the next, and trying to solve things that can’t be solved.  Instead, the best thing you can do is first recognize whether you are solving a problem or operating within a dilemma.

The Polarity Framework applies to ongoing dilemmas.  For example, health, wealth, and wisdom are more great examples.  You don’t get so healthy that you never have to invest in your health again.  Instead, health, wealth, and wisdom are aspects of your life that you manage throughout your life.

The two keys that determine whether something is appropriate for polarity management are:

  1. It’s a dilemma or an ongoing challenge
  2. The polarities are interdependent

It’s the interdependency between the polarities that creates both the challenge and the opportunity.

Focus on the Strengths

Let’s use an example to really highlight the power of the polarity framework.  Using the polarity framework you can deal with common conflict scenarios, as well as get the best of both worlds.

The key is to focus on the strengths.

For example, imagine the tension between working as individuals and working as teams.  You would use the Polarity Framework to identify the strengths and weaknesses of one pole, “Individual”, and then you would identify the strengths and weaknesses of the other pole, “Team.”

Here is where the magic happens … Rather than focus on the downsides, you focus on the upsides, and you combine them to create a better solution.   If you are a Stephen Covey fan, you can think of this as finding the 3rd alternative.

In this case, you might focus on creating teams that allow for individual creativity and freedom, while getting the power of teamwork to create a common direction, and leverage the collective perspective, synergy, and broader team capabilities.  This is actually a good example of how some highly-effective, self-organizing teams were born.

If you want the best of both worlds, and if you want to better manage conflict, then add the Polarity Framework to your toolbox.  Start recognizing the dilemmas around you, and build on the strengths of each polar opposite.

For more on the Polarity Framework, check out Barry Johnson’s book, Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems (Amazon).

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  1. Hi JD,

    I love fresh takes on work life balance like this. I’ve never seen this one.

    You are exactly right about the perspective it gives you. Things like work-life balance don’t have a right or a wrong. It’s really about understanding the strengths of each like you said and knowing where to put yourself so you’re not in conflict.

    Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.


  2. @ Bryce — I think Bruce did a great job of connecting the dots in terms of recognizing work-life balance as a polarity management challenge.

    I also like the fact that this introduced me to a new mental model for dealing with ongoing challenges. I’ve always used the phrase “life’s not static” to capture the dynamic nature and “the pendulum swings” aspect of some challenges, but the polarity management framework is a great lens.

  3. Hi JD, i have not really seen it from this perspective and it is so correct!

    Would you agree that maturity in decision making plays a big part in achieving that balance? It has to be learned from experience and most people will have to see-saw before reality checks in and some balance is achieved.

    As you said it is constantly managed and not fixed with a one-time solution. I guess thatt’s what makes life dynamic and filled with options

  4. This is a novel frame for me as well. I’d heretofore been unaware of the concept of “polarity” in this context, nor its contrast with “problem”. By viewing challenges such as work/life balance & analagous concepts in this way, we’ll be able to view “problems” in new ways—& find new ways to manage them successfully. A great lens, indeed, thank you!

  5. @ Riza — Maturity in decision making plays a role, but I think the real key is self-awareness.

    I also think having the right tools in your toolkit go a long way. As one of my college professors would always say, “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’re not going to see it.” It’s so true.

    @ Jimmy — I like the way you framed it and that is some great precision … polarity vs. problems.

    I really like how the framework helps turn the idea of “find the 3rd alternative” into actionable results.

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