As I was preparing to blog about ecology today, it occurred to me that I need to introduce a key concept that influences how I approach complex and controversial problems like these. It is called polarity management.
A few years ago I read a wonderful book by Dr. Barry Johnson called, Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. His thesis is that a great many (not all) of the issues we define as problems to be solved are actually polarities to be managed.
To illustrate the point, ask your self a question. Which is more important to breathing; inhaling or exhaling? The question is absurd because breathing is the oscillation between these two polar activities.
Johnson uses the idea of matrix with four boxes. The boxes in the left column are one pole and the boxes in the right column are the other pole. The boxes on the top row are the positive aspects of the two poles and the bottom row are the negative aspects.
With the breathing analogy, call “inhaling” Pole 1 and “exhaling” Pole 2. The positive side of inhaling is that the body receives oxygen (Quadrant A). However, if we stop there, carbon dioxide builds up and we die (Quadrant B). This pushes us to the positive aspect of exhaling which is that we expel the carbon dioxide (Quadrant C). However, if we stop there, we will be deprived of oxygen and die (Quadrant D). This pushes back to Quadrant A, and the cycle repeats it self.
The idea is that this same dynamic applies to many polarities in human relationships. For example, take a church board that is divided between those who want a rigidly scheduled and tightly controlled church and those who want a spontaneous, adaptive, and free flowing style of ministry. Call Pole 1 “Planned” and Pole 2 “Free-Flow.”
Quadrant A - The positive side of a planned environment is that everyone knows their responsibility. Lines of accountability are clear. People know what to expect and how to plan. Resources can be effectively and efficiently marshaled for a given task.
Quadrant B – Life together becomes stale. Activities are done by rote. Creativity is stifled. Opportunities are missed because the focus is on keeping the “machine” running. New people with new gifts and passions have no way to plug in.
Quadrant C – The move is toward the free-form. The possibility of new dreams and visions is embraced. New opportunities are identified and pursued. Creativity is unleashed. People begin to find new ways to minister they had never thought of before.
Quadrant D – Eventually chaos ensues. Overlapping activities happen while other concerns drop through the cracks. Creativity is stifled because there is no way to effectively engage the community. Opportunities are missed because there is insufficient structure to mobilize people to action. This pushes the group to Quadrant A and the whole thing starts over.
The fact is that in most polarities, most of us tend to lean toward one pole or the other. We tend to be overly (if not exclusively) focused on the positive aspects of our preference and the negative aspects of the polar opposite. Throw together people leaning toward opposite poles and what too often happens is a power struggles to make one pole or the other prevail. The irony is that should either one win, they will likely kill the organization; just like valuing inhaling over exhaling.
Tremendous breakthroughs can occur when everyone comes to see the polarity for what it is. Understanding begins when I can openly acknowledge the potential downside to my polar preference and express appreciation for the positive aspects of what the polar opposite brings. That lessens the defensive stance of my polar counterpart to do the same, hopefully allowing us to appreciate each others contribution to a healthy polarity. The aim here is not to find a moderate position between the poles. Using the breathing analogy, that is called being dead. *grin* We need to firmly embrace both poles and appreciate their interrelated contributions.
Johnson uses the human function of breathing. The Apostle Paul used the analogy of “the body” to illustrate his perspective on how the various gifts should function in the church. The body is a myriad of managed polarities like breathing. As the body of Christ, we need to learn better how to breathe.