When There is No “Solution”

The human brain defaults to seeing things in an “either/or” framework.  Either that rustling in the underbrush is a threat or it is not.  The person approaching me has hostile intent or they do not.  This proposal is beneficial or it is not.  That framework also shapes the way we consider leadership.

At a largely inarticulate level, our culture treats “leader” as synonymous with “problem solver”.  An effective leader solves problems.  An ineffective leader does not.  This “black and white” view is intuitively satisfying (translation: it lines up with our brain’s default settings) but how true is it?  If every “problem” can be solved with this “either/or” approach then why are there so many apparently intractable “problems” in our work, our lives, our society?

Barry Johnson has produced some wonderful work on the concept of “polarities”.  Put simply, a polarity is not a problem to be solved; it is an ongoing tension between two interdependent things.  It cannot be “solved”, only managed effectively.  A mentor of mine uses the analogy of driving down the road.  The two “poles” of the polarity are the two ditches.  Staying between them is the art of Polarity Management which consists of making constant, subtle course corrections, sometimes in the direction of one “pole” and sometimes in the direction of the other.  Treating a polarity as a problem to be solved is akin to choosing which ditch to drive into and only creates a new set of “issues”. (Readers here in Alberta will be familiar with the ongoing “centralized versus decentralized” debate in Health Services Management.  Much time, energy and money has been expended over the years trying to find a “solution” to … a polarity.)

As you progress in responsibility as an organizational leader, your “inbox” is going to contain fewer and fewer problems to be solved and more and more polarities to manage.  How will you tell the difference?  How will you manage those polarities?  How will you help others to see a polarity to manage where they are accustomed to seeing a problem to solve?  Let’s talk about it.