Polarity Management: Handling "Unsolvable" Problems

Last Updated Mar 7, 2008 8:03 PM EST

One component of our MBA Professional program is a professional development seminar, which entails all-day Saturday sessions five times a year. Each meeting covers a career-oriented topic designed to make us more well-rounded businesspeople.

In the middle of February, we met for our third session, ostensibly focusing on conflict resolution. (Our first two sessions addressed team building and business communications; the next one will be on governance and ethics.) While we usually have a guest speaker in the morning and team activities in the afternoon, this time we had an all-day guest speaker.

Her expertise was in polarity management, an approach to conflict resolution that's about "identifying and managing unsolvable problems." It stresses the importance of recognizing that some situations don't have solutions -- and that life doesn't always have to be either/or.

While some issues are just problems that have a definite answer, the more challenging issues are polarities -- situations in which either side has benefits and drawbacks. Our speaker gave us several examples of polarities: Activity and rest, stability and change, business unit and company, cost and quality.

The key is being able to recognize when a situation contains polarities instead of problems and to learn how to manage those situations. A key component of this process is a polarity map, which defines the strengths and weaknesses of both polarities.

Here are the six steps to the polarity management process:
  1. Define the issue.
  2. Include key stakeholders.
  3. Build the polarity map.
  4. Understand how polarities work.
  5. Assess realities with this polarity.
  6. Determine action steps and early warnings.
This was the first time I've heard of polarity management, so I'm not sure whether it's a well-known philosophy that I just haven't run across yet, an up-and-coming approach growing in popularity, or a niche way of thinking for a small group of managers and consultants. Are you familiar with polarity management? What do you think of its potential to help with conflict resolution and other management challenges?

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