Managing Organisation Tensions.
The Best Solutions are “AND” rather than “OR”
I have found it important in my work to take time out, review and reflect on what I am seeing and experiencing around me. This was nicely expressed recently as “getting off the dance floor and stepping onto the balcony”. In doing so I was seeing more and more polarities, or organisation tensions in my work; the subject of this blog.
I have been a fan of polarity thinking for quite some time and the recognition that many of our wicked challenges require ‘and’ rather than ‘or’ thinking. In particular I am a fan of Barry Johnson, an early proponent of polarity thinking and developer of the Polarity Map. Recently I used the time on a business trip to listen to an episode of The Conscious Capitalist podcast, with Barry Johnson as their guest.
For those not familiar with polarities, they are also known as dilemmas, chronic tensions, or paradoxes. They are interdependent pairs, or poles, that support a common purpose and one another. To achieve a desired outcome, both pairs need to exist and are part of the energy systems in which we live and work.
An example is Activity and Rest. Our bodies need both in order to remain fit and healthy, however too much of either is also detrimental to our well being. When we work, complete tasks or participate in exercise, this is activity for which there are benefits. Too much activity to the neglect of rest however can result in burn out and injury. When we experience this, we move towards the other pole and receive the benefits of rest. However, again, if we remain resting too long we suffer from atrophy and loss of body condition and mental condition. We spend our lives oscillating between the benefits each pole and experiencing the limits of each pole. It is also important to realise that we cannot do both at the same time. This is expressed or shown using the polarity map developed by Johnson
In short, organisation polarities are interdependent pairs that need each other over time, they need to co-exist.
What is great about the concept of polarities is that we need to pay attention to both poles and harness the creative tension that is created. This is not the same is finding a balance or equilibrium. Quite often being in a steady state for too long can result in decay. Rather, we may choose to have a bias towards one pole over the other, but must always pay attention to the implications of over focusing on one at the expense of the other and identifying the early signals that the negative consequence will emerge.
The Individual and The Team
If you have previously worked with me, or are a reader of my articles, you will know that I spend of lot of time working with and exploring the world of teams. I am firm believer that teams are the primary units in our organisations where complex work is best done and the solutions to challenging problems will be found. And whilst this is true, we still need time to do work as individuals. As coaches and leaders, we need to give time to support individuals in their own growth and development alongside that of the team. Below is a polarity map that could represent the tension that exist between the individual and the team.
For leadership teams, we often have the discussion around the tension of being a team of leaders (the individual) and being and interdependent leadership team (the team). More specifically, what of the work that needs to be achieved is best done independently and what is required to be done together.
If you have previously worked with me, or are a reader of my articles, you will know that I spend of lot of time working with and exploring the world of teams. I am firm believer that teams are the primary units in our organisations where complex work is best done and the solutions to challenging problems will be found. And whilst this is true, we still need time to do work as individuals. As coaches and leaders, we need to give time to support individuals in their own growth and development alongside that of the team. Below is a polarity map that could represent the tension that exists between the individual and the team.For leadership teams, we often have the discussion around the tension of being a team of leaders (the individual) and being and interdependent leadership team (the team). More specifically, what of the work that needs to be achieved is best done independently and what is required to be done together.
Country and Cluster (or Region)
I am currently working with a group who comprise representatives of country leadership teams as well as the functional leads who are responsible for supporting the multiple countries. In other organisations you could consider the cluster as perhaps a region, or if you are lucky you have both. That is countries as part of a cluster that sit within a region which report to the global leadership.
Through our exploration phase what emerged was a series of tensions which included:
- Local Accountability and Cluster level priority setting
- Local market responsiveness and Regional business development goals
- Commercial Priorities (usually at country level) and Emergent Functional projects
One of the key drivers for establishing the clusters is best practice sharing and cooperation. Even this can be seen as a polarity. If too much time is spent on sharing, not enough time is spent on doing. On the flip side, if too much time is spent on collecting, analysing and trying implement best practices, the unique needs of local clients could be missed.
So how did we use polarities?
- During a workshop the group used the polarity map to articulate and deepen their shared understanding of the country / cluster polarity.
- We then used this newly emerged alignment to address some of the real life stubborn or recurring tension points that the group experiences.
- Focusing on the benefits of both we developed agreements around roles, responsibilities and decision making authority that will be applied to future similar situations.
- The mapping also helped to shape the content and format for cluster based meetings, including who really needed to attend.
It is too early to formally report back on the impact of the work. What has been agreed is that a one-off workshop does not change ingrained and recurring patterns of behaviours. Thus, the group will continue to check in with itself on how well it is doing against the commitments made as well as if anyone is noticing any ‘red flags’.
My other work using Polarities
During my time at Shell I had the opportunity to use polarity thinking to support a number of leaders and their teams. Topics included:
- The resistance in shifting from local to more centralised strategy setting.
- Decision making, and associated accountability, shifting from centres of expertise to the business leadership teams
- Working with a group experiencing the unintended consequences of implementing a value of radical candour
- Value for speed and autonomy was driving silo behaviours and the desire for greater collaboration that followed went no where.
In late 2020 during the Covid pandemic, I also hosted a workshop looking at the tension that exists between working in the office and working anywhere. We were a little too ahead of our time, and optimistic, thinking that the worst would have been over by 2021. It has been fascinating to watch the emergence of this as a polarity and the associated polarisation of the debate – for there is little dialogue on the topic.