How to Use Polarity Management to Support Innovation

You Need Both Execution and Innovation to Succeed

What are polarities?

What are Polarities?

When it comes to breathing, if you had to pick one would you prefer to only inhale or only exhale?

The question is, of course, absurd. To live, we must do both. Inhaling and exhaling are opposites, but they work together as part of a system.  This is the metaphor that Barry Johnson uses in his book Polarity Management to illustrate what polarities are:

Polarities are interdependent pairs that support a common purpose and one another. They are energy systems in which we live and work.

Here is how the breathing polarity works:

breathing polarity

Johnson explains:

I would like you to try a guided experience. Inhale slowly and deeply for 10 seconds, then hold it! If breathing is a problem to be solved by choosing to either inhale or exhale, I have just provided you with a solution by telling you to inhale. Though inhaling is essential and feels good at first, you soon find yourself sinking into the downside of inhaling, filling up with too much carbon dioxide.

Now exhale slowly during the next 10 seconds, then hold it! Notice the relief as you clean out the carbon dioxide. Though exhaling is essential, you soon find yourself sinking into the downside of exhaling with a need for fresh oxygen. Now inhale again and breathe naturally.

You do not solve the exhale/inhale polarity by choosing to either inhale or exhale. You manage it by getting the benefits of each while appreciating the limits of each. It is not a static situation. It is a process—an ongoing flow of shifting emphasis from one to the other and back again. Managing this polarity requires choosing both inhaling and exhaling.

This is an important concept for a few reasons:

  • Either/or choices are often false dichotomies – more often they represent opposite poles in a polarity.
  • People often view one pole as the way to solve the problem of its opposite.
  • To succeed, we need to gain the positive elements of both poles.

In other words, polarity management is a pretty good way to think of organisational ambidexterity for innovation.

Stability and Change

One of the polarities that Johnson uses is stability/change – it looks like this:

stability and change

One of Johnson’s key ideas is that often people only see the positive aspects of one pole, and the negative aspects of the other.  This leads to conflict.  When it comes to change, some will only want stability – either because they value the upsides of stability, or fear the downsides of change.  Those that want change have similar views from the perspective of their favoured pole.

This leads to fierce arguments between the two camps – but Johnson calls this the One Pole Myth:

Do you know the old truism that our fears are often self-fulfilling prophecies? That is what is going on with this myth. The paradox is that those who are deeply afraid of the downside of change end up experiencing the downside of change. Their fear results in an overemphasis on stability and neglect of the need for the upside of change. The resulting stagnation, if experienced long enough, undermines Loyalty as people wonder if the organization is really going anywhere. There is “Felt” Job Insecurity as people experience the lack of New Perspectives and the lack of New Challenges. Desperation can set in and people who had been Unwilling to Take Risks end up Taking Foolish Risks. The result of fearfully clinging to the Stability pole is first the downside of Stability, then eventually, the downside of Change as well. Nothing breeds chaos like stagnation.

That’s exactly what happens when firms run into the innovator’s dilemma. It is also why being risk-averse actually increases your risk.

Polarity Management for Innovation

The polarities for innovation are similar to those for stability and change – I’ve sketched out a version that compares execution and innovation:

the execution innovation polarity

You can see that it is similar to Johnson’s stability-change polarity.

Here is how you can use this idea to support innovation management:

  • Use it to engage everyone in the process.  One of the blocks that we run into is that there are always some people that resist change of any sort.  While you may never win them over, by acknowledging the downsides to both poles, it makes it easier to bring the people that are neutral along with you.  Polarity management can be an essential tool for getting a majority of people in an organisation supporting a new innovation initiative – not just the ones that are natural change agents.
  • We don’t spend all our time at one pole – healthy organisations fluctuate. People often view fluctuations as failures, but if you understand the necessity of managing both poles, you can see how organisations will naturally spend some time emphasizing one pole, then some time working on the other.  This happens with execution and innovation, with centralised and de-centralised decision making, cost effectiveness and excellence, and so on.
  • People that seem like blockers add value to the innovation process. Johnson calls blockers “tradition bearers”, and says:

    Those tradition bearing make three contributions to the managing of this dilemma: They identify the upside of the present pole, which are things that should be maintained or preserved. They identify the downside of the opposite pole, which are potential problems they want to avoid. They provide the energy necessary to preserve the upside of the present pole and to avoid the downside of the opposite pole.

The key to managing a polarity is to recognize when you are drifting into the negative region of one of the poles and take corrective action as soon as possible.

We can’t spend all our time doing what we do well. As the environment changes, we will become increasingly out-of-step with it requires. This means that we need to spend some time exploring as well.  In the same way, though, we can’t spend all of our time looking for new ideas – then we never have the time or skills needed to execute the great ideas that we find.

To win, we have to do both. That’s the very nature of a polarity.

Note: I’d like to thank Kate Morrison and Scott Thomas for feedback that made this post better.  Also, you can get a good 14 page pdf summary of Polarity Management written by Barry Johnson through the link here.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

8 thoughts on “How to Use Polarity Management to Support Innovation

  1. Tim, I agree this Polarity Management applies to Integrative Innovation and is quite connected with Panarchy Cycle and Business as Roller Coaster concepts; works well with the two Ambidexterity cycles: Exploration and Exploitation.

  2. Hi Tim,

    Fantastic: ‘Polarity Management’ has gone straight onto my reading wish list.

    I’ve forwarded your post onto a customer who’s grappling with the ‘discovery-chaos’ movement: will let you know their response.

    The false dichotomy of ‘or’ reminded me of a passage from Roger Martin’s ‘The Opposable Mind’: “Without exploring the possibilities of opposition , we wouldn’t have developed either its physical properties or the cognition that accompanies and animates it [‘it’ being the capability created by ‘the crucial tension between the thumb and fingers’]”

    When I get my copy of Johnson, I’m looking forward to seeing how the two writers jointly explore the topic.

    Thanks again for the tip!



    • Thanks Rohan! Start with the pdf that I link to at the bottom of the post – it will give you a great preview of the book. It’s not the most entertaining read ever, but the thinking behind it is sound.

      Hope you’re doing well!

  3. Tim,

    Great article. I especially loved the picture summarizing the connections. Being a UQ alumni, it’s great to see top quality thought leadership coming from down under. Keep up the great work!

    Evan Shellshear

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