top of page
< Back

Polarity Management

Don’t love itNot greatGoodGreatLove it
average rating is null out of 5, based on 0 votes, Ratings

"Polar Opposites: Harnessing the Potential of Polarity Management"

Polarity Management, a concept developed by Dr. Barry Johnson, is a practical tool and set of principles designed to assist individuals and organizations in managing unsolvable problems. Unlike problems that require solutions, polarities are ongoing, chronic issues which are indispensable and unsolvable. They are issues that require continuous balancing over time, like a pendulum that swings between two opposing poles.

The modern-day relevance of Polarity Management has become particularly pronounced given the complex challenges posed by rapid technological advancements, demographic shifts, and social change. The tool and its underlying theory are tied to the broader field of Systems Thinking, emphasizing the interdependent nature of polarities and the need for a balanced approach in managing them.

The operational description of Polarity Management entails the identification of polarities, mapping them out using a Polarity Map, and leveraging the map to achieve a higher level of performance and a deeper understanding of complex issues. The tool comprises several steps:

  1. Identify the Polarity: Recognizing the interdependent pairs that exist, like stability and change, or individuality and collectivity.

  2. Mapping the Polarity: Utilizing a Polarity Map to visually represent the positive and negative aspects of each pole.

  3. Assessing the Polarity: Analyzing the current state of the polarity, identifying early warning signs of an imbalance.

  4. Leveraging the Polarity: Developing action steps to maximize the benefits of each pole while minimizing the downsides.

By delving deeper into the upcoming sections, you will uncover the extensive benefits of Polarity Management, learn when to employ this tool, and explore real-world examples that illustrate its application in diverse organizational settings.


Polarity Management presents a host of benefits that address the inherent complexities of organizational dynamics:

  • Increased Awareness: Fosters a deeper understanding of complex issues, enabling more informed decision-making.

  • Enhanced Adaptability: Promotes organizational adaptability in the face of changing circumstances by encouraging a balanced approach.

  • Conflict Reduction: Reduces conflict by providing a shared framework for understanding and discussing polarities.

  • Optimized Performance: Facilitates higher levels of performance by leveraging the strengths of opposing poles.

When to use

Polarity Management proves to be invaluable in various organizational scenarios marked by complex, ongoing issues:

  • Strategic Planning: During phases of strategic planning, where a balance between short-term and long-term goals is crucial.

  • Change Management: In change management endeavors, especially when managing resistance to change and fostering acceptance.

  • Team Dynamics: When navigating the balance between cohesion and diversity within teams to foster innovative solutions.

  • Leadership Development: Assisting leaders in understanding and balancing competing demands, such as control and empowerment.

Each scenario requires a nuanced approach to balance the polarities effectively, ensuring organizational success amidst evolving challenges.

Case Examples

  1. Healthcare: "Balancing Care and Cost"

    A healthcare organization struggling with the polarity of providing high-quality care while controlling costs employed Polarity Management. By mapping out the polarity, identifying early warning signs, and developing action steps, they successfully enhanced the quality of care while maintaining financial sustainability.

  2. Technology: "Innovate or Integrate"

    A tech firm faced the polarity of innovating new solutions versus integrating existing technologies. Through Polarity Management, they found a balanced approach that drove continuous innovation while leveraging existing tech solutions, propelling them ahead in a competitive market.

  3. Non-Profit: "Mission and Margin"

    A non-profit organization grappling with balancing mission fulfillment and financial sustainability employed Polarity Management. The process helped them strategically align their resource allocation with mission goals, ensuring a meaningful impact while achieving financial stability.

How to introduce Polarity Management

Introducing Polarity Management begins with creating a shared understanding of the concept of polarities and the importance of managing them effectively. This involves explaining the difference between solvable problems and ongoing polarities, followed by showcasing the Polarity Management tool through real-world examples or hypothetical scenarios relevant to the audience. Framing Polarity Management as a means to navigate the inherent complexities of organizational life will foster a conducive learning environment for exploring this tool further.

Sample Introduction Script

"Today, we embark on a journey to explore a powerful tool known as Polarity Management. In our organizational landscape, we often encounter complex issues that seem like problems to be solved, yet they persist over time. These are polarities—interdependent pairs that require our attention and balanced management. Through Polarity Management, we will learn to identify, map, and leverage these polarities to our advantage, paving the way for enhanced understanding, reduced conflict, and optimized performance."

Helpful Facilitator Questions

  1. What polarities are currently at play in our organization?

  2. How are these polarities manifesting in our day-to-day operations?

  3. What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of each pole?

  4. How might we leverage these polarities to enhance our organizational effectiveness?

Challenges you may Face

When introducing Polarity Management, some common challenges include:

  • Resistance to a New Framework: Overcoming initial resistance by demonstrating the practical benefits of Polarity Management.

  • Misidentification of Polarities: Ensuring accurate identification of polarities as opposed to solvable problems.

  • Maintaining a Balanced Perspective: Encouraging a balanced perspective rather than favoring one pole over the other.

Related Theories

  1. Systems Thinking (Peter Senge): Systems Thinking underpins the concept of Polarity Management, emphasizing the interdependent nature of organizational elements and the importance of examining the system as a whole.

  2. Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) Theory: This theory sheds light on the complex, interdependent, and adaptive nature of organizational systems, reinforcing the need for tools like Polarity Management.

  3. Conflict Resolution Theories: Various conflict resolution theories resonate with Polarity Management, especially in understanding and navigating conflicts arising from opposing values or priorities within an organization.


  1. How has our understanding of organizational dynamics evolved through the lens of Polarity Management?

  2. In what ways can we continuously monitor and manage identified polarities?


  1. How does Polarity Management influence decision-making processes within organizations?

  2. What impacts does Polarity Management have on organizational culture and team dynamics?


  1. "Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems" by Barry Johnson.

  2. "The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization" by Peter Senge.

  3. "Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In" by Roger Fisher and William Ury.


Polarity Management unveils a pragmatic approach to navigating the complex, interdependent, and often perplexing issues inherent in organizational life. By recognizing, understanding, and managing polarities, organizations are better positioned to adapt to changing circumstances, optimize performance, and foster a harmonious organizational culture. The journey of mastering Polarity Management opens a vista of opportunities for individuals and organizations alike to thrive amidst complexity, making it a worthy endeavor for anyone committed to organizational excellence and continuous learning.

OD Application

Harnessing Dualities with Polarity Management

In the intricate tapestry of organizational dynamics, polarities or paradoxes are ever-present. These are interdependent pairs that, while appearing contradictory, are in fact complementary. Polarity Management, a concept pioneered by Dr. Barry Johnson, offers a structured methodology to understand and navigate these polarities, ensuring that organizations can harness the strengths of both sides without getting mired in the downsides. For Organization Development (OD) consultants, Polarity Management provides a robust lens to drive transformative change, ensuring sustainable well-being and prosperity.

Polarity Management as a Change Intervention

Unlike problems which have solutions, polarities are ongoing, chronic issues that cannot be "solved" but must be managed. Polarity Management recognizes this distinction and offers a way to continuously balance between the two poles of a polarity, leveraging the best of both.

Well-being Impacts:

  1. Organizational Culture: Embracing polarities can foster a culture of acceptance, where diverse perspectives are not only tolerated but celebrated. This creates a milieu of inclusivity and psychological safety.

  2. Social Psychology: By acknowledging and working with polarities, organizations can prevent the "us vs. them" mentality, promoting unity and shared understanding.

  3. Ethical Decision Making: Polarities often touch upon ethical dimensions. By openly discussing and managing these polarities, organizations can navigate ethical dilemmas with greater clarity and integrity.

  4. DE&I: Polarities are inherently about embracing diversity of thought and perspective. Polarity Management aligns perfectly with DE&I initiatives, promoting a truly inclusive environment.

Prosperity Impacts:

  1. Organizational Design: Recognizing polarities can influence organizational design. For instance, balancing centralized vs. decentralized structures or embracing both stability and change.

  2. Organizational Strategy: Strategic decision-making often involves navigating polarities, such as long-term vs. short-term focus. Polarity Management ensures a holistic approach.

  3. Organizational Performance: By actively managing polarities, organizations can harness the strengths of both poles, driving improved performance and innovation.

Guidelines for Determining the Right Fit

For OD consultants eyeing Polarity Management:

  1. Nature of the Challenge: Is the issue at hand a solvable problem or an ongoing polarity? Polarity Management is most apt for the latter.

  2. Organizational Openness: Is the organization open to embracing dualities? A receptive culture is crucial for effective polarity management.

  3. Leadership Alignment: Leaders must recognize the value of managing, rather than resolving, polarities. Their buy-in is essential.

Presenting Challenges Indicating the Approach's Suitability

  1. Persistent Issues: If an organization faces recurring challenges despite multiple solution attempts, it might be dealing with a polarity.

  2. Tug-of-War Dynamics: If two groups or departments seem to be pulling in opposite directions, a polarity might be at play.

  3. Stagnation: If an organization is stuck in a status quo, unable to move forward or innovate, unmanaged polarities might be the underlying cause.

Tailoring and Facilitating for Sustainable Change

  1. Map the Polarity: Begin by visually mapping out the polarity, identifying the positive and negative aspects of both poles.

  2. Engage Stakeholders: Involve all relevant stakeholders in the process, ensuring diverse perspectives are considered.

  3. Monitor and Adjust: Recognize that polarities are dynamic. Regularly review the balance, making adjustments as needed.

Observing Impact at Various Levels

  1. Individual Level: Individuals in organizations practicing Polarity Management often report a greater sense of clarity, reduced conflict, and enhanced collaboration.

  2. Team Level: Teams become more cohesive, able to navigate disagreements constructively and tap into the strengths of diverse viewpoints.

  3. Organizational Level: At a macro scale, organizations become more agile, adaptive, and innovative. They can nimbly navigate challenges, turning potential pitfalls into opportunities for growth.

Polarity Management is not just a tool; it's a mindset shift. It's about recognizing that the world is not black and white, and that embracing the gray can lead to richer, more holistic outcomes. By actively managing polarities, organizations can foster an environment where both well-being and prosperity thrive, where challenges become opportunities, and where dualities become strengths. In this intricate dance between opposites, lies the potential for genuine transformation—a journey from either/or to both/and, from conflict to synergy, and from stagnation to flourishing. OD consultants, armed with the principles of Polarity Management, are perfectly poised to guide organizations on this transformative journey, ensuring a future that is both harmonious and prosperous.

bottom of page