One of the hallmarks of a complex problem is the fact that we are confronted by paradox and polarity everywhere we turn. When a situation has a both/and in it, it is dynamic and unresolvable to one choice or the other. It needs to be managed, lived with, coaxed into a place where the positive aspects of both can coexist.
These polarities exist everywhere in human systems. On my home island right now we are going through one of our periodic confrontations of the polarities that define our place. Fundamentally this polarity comes down to an age old struggle between change and stability.
It is well captured by my friend Ron Woodall, our local cartoonist who never fails to hit issues like this square on the nose.
In island communities, there is a palpable sense of identity liked to the boundaries that encompass us, the history and culture that unfolds in a small, tightly connected community, and the state of the place when we first arrived and formed our earliest, most idealistic, and most lasting impressions. From that moment on, change continues, and longing for what was intensifies. It may grow so strong that one no longer recognizes the place and disappointment, sadness and despair takes over. “This is not the Bowen I knew.” That realization makes some changes feel existential in nature, and they are. They are a kind of evaporation of the identity that we construct and cling to. Over time, one needs to seek meaning in the changes, helping to shape them or surrendering to them so that one’s connection to the place remains meaningful. Or one leaves, either physically or emotionally.
We have many polarities active on Bowen Island. Some of the ones we live with include:
- Affordable housing and high property values
- Attracting visitors and managing the crowds
- Isloation from Vancouver and proximity to Vancouver
- Public access and private property.
- Individual and community
- Accessibility and privacy.
Polarization in communities happens when people get locked in to one side or another of a polarity and try to influence policy in their favour. Populism can easily play on this sentiment. “Vote for me and I will protect you from those people who want everything to change. Stability. Tradition. Security.” versus “It’s time to do away with the old guard. Vote for me and I will drain the swamp, get rid of the deadwood and bring us into a shiny new world.”
The reality of governance is something like “Vote for me and I will aim to preserve what’s working for us while considering changes to the way our community works that may be hard to swallow, but might take us in a positive direction, while still preserving everything we’ve been that makes us unique.” Good luck running on that platform in this age. And yet the reality of governance, and especially local governance, is that this is actually the job.
Managing polarities is a critical aspect of leadership in a community. Local government folks and the other stewards of our community have to manage these polarities constantly. The change versus stability polarity is an important case in point..Change happens and we need to respond to it so that it is beneficial as a whole, to the land, to the local economy, to the citizens and residents. But preserving traditions and identity is important too, especially in small communities where social connections are important, and where a shared sense of who we are is helpful for doing shared things, like building infrastructure, helping those in need, and fostering good relationships that can be relied upon in a crisis such as a fire or an earthquake.
There are ways of working with polarities that help folks become nuanced and strategic and adaptable to the changing nature of the environment in which the polarity exists. Barry Johnson’s Polarity Management tool is one of those tried and true frameworks that I use to help folks think through the polarities that they face. It’s a very accessible tool too, and using it allows you to see a fuller picture of what is happening. Here are some steps to follow:
- Begin by identifying a polarity. Often if there is a conflict with two sides in a community, there is a polarity at its heart. Sometimes several positions can be concentrated into an overall polarity. If you have a Ron Woodall in your community, get them to capture it in a diabolical cartoon. Lay these out on a map like the one I depict below.
- Start with identifying the highest ideal or state that both sides of the pole are trying to reach. Then identify the biggest fear or the pit of despair that both are trying to avoid. These should be broad and abstract states, captured only in a few words.
- Identify the upsides of both pole. What’s GOOD and positive about making changes? What is the benefit of stability? You are looking to identify a positive direction of travel. If you are working with a group of people who carry different opinions but are willing to consider other positions, you can even have them identify the positive aspects of the OTHER side.
- Next, identify the downsides that will happen if we tip to one side or another. It can be valuable here if people championing one side are able to identify the downsides to their position. But if they can’t, have no fear. Those who disagree with them will have lots to offer!
- Once you’ve filled out the map, the next step is to find indicators for the down sides that you can use as early warning signs of a situation that is falling too far to one side or the other. These indicators should be fairly obvious and they can be used to monitor the situation. An important skill to managing in complexity is rigorously looking for the early signs of failure. A bias towards positive outcomes will almost always create a situation of inattentional blindness, whereby the early signs of failure are ignored because mostly things are going well. With a co-created polarity map, you can put everyone’s attention to use looking for these early signs.
- Finally, identify strategies to maximize the UPSIDES of each pole. What are things we could do today that would take us in THAT direction. Deliberately focus on each upside separately. You will find that these simple strategies help right the ship when the early signs point to you tipping too far to one side or the other.
Here is the polarity map I completed around the change versus stability polarity. Click here to see a higher res version on miro.
It’s easy for local governments, committees and even citizens to complete polarity maps on their own. A completed polarity map gives you a broad strategic canvas on which to operate. For volatile situations, it’s worth reviewing the map frequently and making sure that indicators and strategies remain relevant to the context. The process of making a map can also be a very valuable exercise to build your team and enlist everyone in helping to manage the polarity. It can also be used as a process to put conflict to work for a community. For those whose job it is to actually govern, polarity maps can make visible the challenge they face as they try to meet everyone’s needs well. They can provide a degree of transparency and complexity that helps keep populism at bay and enlists more people in the very real, very thorny and very political realities of policy and governance.
I’m curious if you have used this tool in local governance and what you have learned.