Polarities are two opposing positions. With polarities, there is no definitive endpoint or “one right answer,” so they need to be managed rather than solved. To do this, polarities require “and-both” thinking in which we leverage the strengths of each pole while mitigating the weaknesses or drawbacks of each. Polarity maps are valuable tools in helping to foster “and-both” thinking and manage polarities. Managing is getting the most of both polarities while failing is getting the worst of both.
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What to do
- In advance, prepare polarity topic cards to use during the activity (e.g. detailed versus emergent planning, central control versus distributed leadership, tradition versus innovation, evolutionary versus revolutionary change, patient-centred care versus provider-centred care, etc.).
- Using the index cards on the tables, invite groups to spend five minutes picking a polarity to discuss.
- Once a topic is chosen, ask teams to create a polarity map by constructing a simple two-by-two matrix on their flipchart paper.
- Have teams write one of the topics (aka polarity) above each column.
- Invite teams to use the top row of their polarity map to record the positives of each topic.
- After 10 minutes, invite the teams to use the bottom row to record the negatives of each topic.
- After 10 minutes, have the teams identify early warnings and record them beside the negatives of each topic. Note: early warnings are those signs that will let them know when they are moving to the downside of one or both of the topics.
- After 10 minutes, invite the teams to outline actions they can take to ensure that they are maintaining the positives of each topic. Have teams record these beside the positives in the top row.
- After 10 minutes, invite the teams to discuss the results of their polarity map for five minutes.
- Debrief with the teams.
- What was it like to explore the positive of both topics?
- What was it like to explore the negatives of both topics?
- Did this allow you to see the possibilities of each topic/polarity?
- What was the value of identifying the early warnings and actions for the negatives and positives of the poles?
- How would you apply this activity back in your workplace?