Unsolvable choices - what if the answer is not to choose?
Polarities may be at a personal level or at an organizational level
“Problem” of centralization and decentralization that organizations face is not really a problem but a polarity
In life and at work, we are always caught between choices. Choices we perceive to be between two opposite ends that we experience them as hard decisions we must take where there will be a compromise. It may be at a personal level or at an organizational level. At the individual level, it could be about the personal or managerial style at work, being assertive or being inclusive or even being strict or flexible. The same happens at the organizational level, should the company focus on cost or quality, centralize the organizational structure or decentralize it, or have a chilled out culture or a disciplined one. These are not choices, but “polarities”.
I had the privilege of attending a workshop on ‘Navigating Paradox and Leadership Maturity’ that People Matters and Institute of Polarities and Paradox organized in Mumbai last week. Beena Sharma, President, Center for Leadership Maturity and Founding Partner, Institute of Polarities and Paradox was the lead facilitator, accompanied by Barry Johnson Ph.D., Chairman, Chief Thought Leader, Polarity Partnerships, LLC.
The workshop was a fascinating experience and had a fantastic concept: Polarities are two interdependent extremes that look incompatible at first, but one can actually leverage the benefits that both bring to the table with the help of tools. This is how Barry Johnson defines polarity in his book “Polarity Management - Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems”. Explaining the nature of polarity in her personal life, Beena said while she is assertive, she sometimes misses being inclusive. She values being inclusive, as she is aware of the benefits that inclusiveness brings to the conversations. One would think that being assertive and inclusive are mutually exclusive, but they really are not. If you think about it, the best leaders have managed this polarity pretty well.
Illustrating this, Barry says that the traditional business “problem” of centralization and decentralization that organizations face is not really a problem but a polarity. Those organizations that integrate the benefits of a decentralized structure with those of a centralized approach become successful over time, which is makes for more sustainable organizations. These polarities must not be looked at the ‘either or’ lens, but as a pair to extract the maximum value of the opportunities they bring with them.
Here are some of the polarities that HR leaders face:
Personalized & Standardized. Giving personal individual attention to our internal stakeholders (employees) is understood to be contrary to bringing in processes, technology and standardization to HR delivery and hence scale. In my experience, we see this as ‘either or’ choices: Human vs Process? High Touch vs High Tech? Connect vs Scale? Can we leverage technology, processes and standardization on these touch points that need that approach and, at the same time, take advantage of high touch in others? Replacing the ‘vs’ with ‘AND’ represents bringing in Polarity WisdomTM for a more integrative approach.
According to Barry, most organizations don’t see issues as polarities. We have a natural tendency to be drawn towards one of the poles based on the culture and leadership style of the organization. If we assume that the organization is naturally drawn to a high touch or highly personalized approach, to the exclusion of standard processes, then all the negative elements such as difficulties of scale, people dependencies and lack of consistency will creep in. And when we try to solve the problem, the gap analysis exercise will show that the company needs to standardize the way that HR is delivered and hence they will move (or unsuccessfully try to move) to the other pole. But, the other pole of standardization will lead to certain downsides such as employees feeling disengaged, lack of camaraderie and feeling of loneliness (if practiced to the exclusion of personalization).
This process will continue forever from high touch to high tech and from high tech to high touch because it is an unsolvable problem; this is not a problem – it is a polarity. Managing polarities will mean that the organization can take advantage of standardization and technology to be able to be personal and individual, as well as get the advantages of being high touch in order to support greater adoption of technology and processes.
‘A’ players & All employees. Another polarity that HR leaders face is differentiating between A players and the rest - or to be inclusive—Reward stars or teams? Recognize outliers or everybody? Again this is seen as an ‘either or’ decision, but organizations that are successful are able to marry the benefits of both. Can my reward system be designed to take care of recognizing all and creating an environment of alignment and pride, while having a system to objectively and transparently identify, recognize and invest significantly in with those individuals that either are contributing or have the potential to contribute significantly more? Choosing either-or will also dissatisfy one of the two segments of employees and we all know we need both.
Pay satisfaction & Company Affordability. This polarity is more difficult to solve and I guess this is where creativity and cross-functional work with finance and operations come into play. This is a similar polarity to cost and customer service in the business side – how can organizations like Singapore Airlines be one of the most cost effective airlines and yet have the highest standards of customer satisfaction? There is an opportunity here for HR leaders to leverage the benefits from both, by understanding what ‘satisfaction’ means for different segments and marrying that to a plan that includes monetary & non-monetary components of pay.
Short term & long term. This polarity is a great one for recruitment & learning teams. Do we focus on hiring for short-term needs or for long term? Do we train for skills we need today or for skills we need tomorrow? Do we invest in people, capabilities, leadership or potential projects when they are unlikely to give returns in the financial year? Yes to both!
While Beena & Barry have designed a methodology that can help you and your organization navigate polarities. When one reflects about the concepts, one can imagine how complex is to integrate the benefits of two polarities – who said that the path to greatness will be easy?
One thing I have already experienced—once we see the world through the lenses of polarities and not through the lenses of “either or”, a new world possibilities open up in front of us. Beena and Barry warned all of us at the workshop that now that we understand the world with the lenses of polarities, you will see them everywhere-indeed! What polarities are your organization struggling to manage? Please share and join the conversation.