Partnerships and Polarity Management

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” –  F. Scott Fitzgerald.

We all tend to see the difficulties we encounter at work and in life in general as problems we must solve. We come by this tendency honestly through formal education and through learned experience where we told to look for “the answer” to our problems. This is often the case in partnerships where we constantly look to solve the complex challenges of working together.  But is this possible and even in the best interests of building effective and impactful partnerships?  

In Barry Johnson’s excellent book, Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems he considers a fundamental questions when encountering challenging problems: “Is this a problem we can solve, or is it an ongoing polarity, paradox, or dilemma that we must manage well?”

Polarities are ongoing, chronic issues that are unavoidable and unsolvable. Attempting to address them with traditional problem solving skills only makes things worse. There is significant competitive advantage for those leaders, teams, or organizations that can distinguish between a problem to solve and a polarity to manage and are effective with both.

Polarities to manage are opposites, which do not function well independently.  These seemingly opposing ideas or actions are not customary problems to be solved with “Either/Or” thinking; they are actually polarities or dilemmas or paradoxes which must be managed with “Both/And” thinking.  Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, one cannot choose one as a solution while neglecting the other – without experiencing negative outcomes.  The point of Polarity Management is to leverage the best of both opposites, while avoiding the limitations of each.

Polarity Management in Partnerships

Partners in any complex change initiative invariably experience tensions around positions that seem mutually exclusive: common good and self-interest; team value and individual needs; for profit and non-profit.  These polarities are often viewed as problems to be solved and can be sources of polarization and being stuck if allowed to play out covertly.   But the fundamental question to be discussed: “Is this a problem we can solve, or is it an ongoing polarity, paradox, or dilemma that must be managed well?”

But by framing these tensions as positive assets and helping the group get the best of both values (like the best of action AND reflection; using art AND science to manage the partnership) partners can collaborate more deeply and design better, more resilient solutions.  Partnership brokers become more effective as they learn to consciously use diversity and divergent thinking as resources for developing high performing cultures that promote community and productivity.  Effective partnerships leadership requires proficiency in seeing and integrating multiple interdependent perspectives through “Both/And” thinking, as well as proficient problem-solving with “Either/Or” thinking.

Polarity Map Framework

Barry Johnson took the concept and created the Polarity Map to help visualize both-and thinking. The map has four quadrants with each pole having an upside and a downside. Upsides are about the positive results obtained when we focus on that pole, and downsides are about the negative outcomes present there is an over-focus on this side without paying attention to the other side.

With an understanding of polarity principles, one can predict what will happen if the focus is only on one side. In fact, the more attention paid to one side of a pole, the more certainty there is that there will be a move to the downside of the very thing that has taken all the attention. In addition, the more you are attached to “your side” or “your value,” the more you are unable to see the potential downsides attached to it.


Some complex problems simply do not have “solutions.” The key to being an effective partnership leader is being able to recognize and manage such problems. Polarity Management presents a unique model and set of principles that will challenge you to look at situations in new ways. Also included are exercises to strengthen your skills, and case studies to help you begin applying the model to your own unsolvable problems. This is a must-read book for anyone working in complex partnerships.