Last week, I talked with a client who expressed a common frustration: she’s so busy putting out daily fires that she has no time to focus on long-term goals or more strategic work.
It’s an example of a paradox that occurs in every organization. Managing the day-to-day and planning for the future are both critical. Other universal paradoxes? Tending to the tried and true while pursuing creativity and innovation. Managing localized needs while creating global standardization. Upholding sustainability commitments while delivering shareholder value.
Leaders struggle daily with contradictory pressures. You may view these strategic paradoxes—or polarities—as “either/or” problems. But what would happen if you reframed them as “both/and” opportunities?
Problem vs. Polarity
We know you face a lot of tough choices at work and in life. You rush to meet short-term demands while long-term goals get neglected. You fight to stay on top of an increasing workload while struggling to be present for your family. You try desperately to find the balance between climbing the career ladder and pursuing your personal passion.
But stop to think: Are these challenges problems to solve or polarities to manage?
A problem has a right (or best) answer. You can address it and pack it away by making an “either/or” choice.
A polarity doesn’t have just one solution. It is ongoing and requires dynamic management and “both/and” thinking.
Leadership requires you to understand the difference between a problem and a polarity—and shift your mindset to see how polarities can spur progress rather than impede it.
There’s no doubt that the scenarios you find yourself in as a leader can create stress and lead to conflict. But polarities don’t have to be conflicting—they can be complementary.
Individual and organizational success depend on your ability to address contradictory pressures, conflicting demands, and competing priorities. Rather than treating them like problems and choosing between them, the most effective leaders embrace “both/and” thinking.
This way of thinking may seem complicated, but it’s necessary because polarities are everywhere. Both/and leadership is a way of managing those ever-present tensions in our complex world.
Researchers Wendy Smith, Marianne Lewis, and Michael Tushman identified three mindset shifts leaders can adopt to manage polarities more successfully:
- Well-intentioned consistency vs. consistent inconsistency. When two seemingly opposite objectives present themselves, don’t pick a side. Instead, embrace both “truths” and manage the tension between them.
- Scarce resources vs. abundant resources. Think beyond the usual constraints and seek ways to create value from a broader set of alternatives (think partnerships, technologies, etc.).
- Stability and certainty vs. change and uncertainty. Let go of the belief that stability should be the norm. Instead, embrace ambiguity and promote creativity and experimentation.
Polarity Management in Practice
The polarities you may have viewed as problems aren’t going anywhere, and relying on your old ways of problem-solving will be ineffective. The next time you’re wrestling with a complex challenge, ask yourself, “Is this a problem to solve or a polarity to manage?”
If your problem is actually a polarity, this simple framework might help nudge you toward “both/and” thinking.
- Consider the interdependence between the two pressures. Where do they intersect? How does one depend upon the other?
- Encourage dialogue on your team and in your organization. Instead of asking, “Which do we prioritize?” ask, “How can we do both?” Diverse perspectives will help you find solutions that address both sides simultaneously.
- Be flexible and adapt as the context changes. In today’s fast-paced and complex world, the solution you arrive at today may need to look different tomorrow.
- View polarity management as a learning process. Be open to experimentation and encourage feedback to help build a culture of “both/and” thinking.
At Transitions Coaching, we work with leaders every day who are forced to navigate complexity.
Our individual coaching and group programs help leaders create meaningful changes in their thinking and behavior. Meet the Transitions Coaching team here and learn how we can help you adopt new perspectives to guide your growth as a leader.