By J. Brian Atwater, CPIM, and Paul Pittman, PhD, CFPIM, CSCP, Jonah | 23 | 5 | September 12, 2013
Reveal creative business strategies
with polarity management
Business professionals around the globe and at all different levels of the organization share similar issues and challenges: the déjà vu of addressing the same problem for the second, third, or maybe even fourth time; the pendulum swing of deciding to stop one activity in favor of another, but then going back to the original (often wrong) approach; reversing a decision made by a predecessor, which ends up being the wrong tactic—just for different, new reasons. Many people come to the conclusion that these swings are either unavoidable parts of conducting business or natural consequences of changing competitive forces.
Here’s the good news: The more experience you have, the more you notice recurring patterns. And if that’s the case, then you are halfway along your journey to more effective understanding and management of these phenomena because you recognize that you are dealing with a polarity, not just a problem. A polarity describes two competing activities that are both necessary to achieve desired outcomes. For example, in order to be productive, you must work. But if you work too much, your productivity drops and you need to take a break and rest. Therefore, work and rest are polarities that both are necessary for an optimal level of productivity.
Polarities are all around us. Consider companies oscillating between centralization and decentralization or off- and on-shoring. When the swing between poles takes a long time, this often looks like a problem to be solved—but that is incorrect. Longer swings are more challenging often because the same decision makers aren’t around to experience both sides. And unlike a problem, the key to a polarity is not in its solution, but in its management. The most productive people are those who successfully manage the work/rest polarity, the most effective leaders are those who know when to take action and when inaction is more effective, and the best-performing organizations are those that skillfully handle the polarities inherent in business.
Problems versus polarities
Problems are one-time events to be solved. For instance, a certain process makes it difficult to maintain tolerances, so you find the root cause of the issue and address it. This is not a polarity because producing output that is outside tolerances is not a desirable outcome. With a polarity, there are positive aspects to two seemingly opposite alternatives. When deciding whether to choose option A or option B, you find yourself torn because there are pros and cons to both. If you place too much emphasis on one option at the exclusion of the other, the result is suboptimal performance and, ultimately, failure.
Sometimes you must dig below the surface of an issue to identify its polarity. Consider the familiar dilemma of choosing between two different suppliers. The process appears fairly straightforward: You collect relevant data, assess it, and make the best choice. However, as you examine the information, you see significant pros and cons in both suppliers. Does this mean it is a polarity? Possibly, but the polarity likely is not the alternative suppliers themselves, but the underlying factors that make each one attractive.
Imagine supplier A is a business with which you have an established relationship. You know the company is reliable and offers quality material. Perhaps supplier B is new and uses cutting-edge technology that could advance your business. Here, the polarity is not the suppliers, but the need to maintain reliable supply while developing new and innovative partnerships. As with all polarities, good management of this issue can lead to a strong competitive advantage.
The polarity map
Managers must take a systemic perspective when dealing with complex issues. Fortunately, there is a tool for managing polarities called a polarity map. A polarity map is a 2-by-2 matrix that identifies positives and negatives of each side of a polarity. The two polar alternatives are written in the middle of the matrix, with the positive aspects of each alternative listed in the top two quadrants and the negative aspects listed in the bottom two quadrants. (See Figure 1.)
Here is a common real-world example to help illustrate. A professional must decide to either carry safety stock or keep low or no inventory, operating with a pure Just-in-Time (JIT) approach. (See Figure 2.) Because people generally have strong preferences as to which polar alternative is best, it is essential to enlist the help of people with opposite perspectives. When JIT started to gain popularity, some companies were too aggressive and soon saw the methodology’s downsides. In some cases, the knee-jerk reaction was to go back to carrying high levels of safety stock. Of course, there are downsides to this approach, as well.
Effective inventory management is dynamic. Conditions often shift over time, making it better to carry more stock at times and less at others. Holding inventory at strategic locations can be an asset; at other locations, it is a liability. Rather than blindly adhering to one perspective, it’s important to recognize when the current approach is causing a greater number of negative aspects and it’s time to put more emphasis on the polar alternative. This ebb and flow approach is called the infinity loop and is shown in Figure 3.
The infinity loop represents the reality of a polarity flow. After experiencing the positive aspects of one side, its negative aspects show up. Consequently, the decision is made to implement an alternative approach—which, of course, leads to the same results. Because people tend to see only the downsides of the pole they oppose, they resist change, causing tension and dissension to develop among those favoring the alternative. Moreover, this ebb and flow generally happens over time, so the movement through the four quadrants is slow, disruptive, and expensive.
Managers can use polarity maps in several ways to proactively manage these swings and minimize or avoid downsides. Ideally, a map is constructed with the whole group participating in order to fully identify all aspects of the four quadrants. The focus should be on experiencing the positive aspects of both poles, while emphasizing that neither group is wrong or bad. In essence, both sides can concede that they want the positive aspects that each alternative offers, as illustrated in Figure 4.
A polarity map can get people to see the upsides to the pole they feel is wrong and the downsides to the pole they favor. This makes it easier to facilitate an ongoing dialogue that ultimately enables the organization to reach an operating level within the upper two quadrants. Plus, warning signs from the lower quadrants can signal when it is time to start implementing new ideas.
Additionally, in scenarios where it seems there is no hope of moving forward, the polarity map can be used to start a dialogue. Difficult conversations are facilitated by framing the discussion around the reverse flow of the infinity loop. Begin with the upper level of the quadrant, which contains positives people are having trouble acknowledging. Next, move to the lower level of the approach the organization needs to move toward. In this way, the dialogue is starting with the aspects that resisters of change identify with most (the way they see the polarity), and they know they are being heard. Then, shift to the upside of the quadrant of the approach toward which the business needs to move and list the positives. Finally, list the problems the company is currently experiencing—shown in the downside of the current-state quadrant.
Here is a script that follows this reverse-process approach, again using the safety-stock-versus-JIT example: “I know you value shorter customer order lead times and being less susceptible to supply disruptions and quality problems. And I know you want the safety of extra inventory. However, I would like to see us improve our cash flow, reduce manufacturing lead times, more quickly adopt innovations, and respond to customer changes more efficiently. We are currently experiencing high obsolescence costs, poor cash flow, and complacency in our improvement efforts.”
In addition to easing complicated conversations, there are many more advantages to learning and applying polarity maps. These include more proactive management, minimizing negative consequences, recognizing and predicting repeating patterns, understanding different perspectives, and more. Most importantly, with practice, individuals and groups soon will recognize when they are dealing with a polarity and can apply a polarity map. This shifts the company from a position of reacting to change to proactively leading and managing it. Finally, polarity management provides supply chain and operations management professionals with the wisdom to make effective decisions that improve performance while staying away from the mistakes of the past.
J. Brian Atwater, CPIM, is assistant professor of operations management at Indiana University Southeast, teaching courses in systems thinking and project management. Atwater has worked as an examiner for the Shingo Prize and has provided consulting services for several businesses including Apple, Carrier Transicold, Schuller/Manville, and 3M. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Pittman, PhD, CFPIM, CSCP, Jonah, is professor of operations management at Indiana University Southeast, where his teaching has earned him numerous teaching honors including the Indiana University distinguished teaching award. Pittman is a member of the APICS Foundation board of directors, and his past service includes the CPIM program chair. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
To comment on this article, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The concept of polarity management comes from Barry Johnson, author of Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems and founder of Polarity Management Associates. Readers interested in a more in-depth discussion of the topic are encouraged to read Johnson’s book or visit polaritypartnerships.com.