Polarity Thinking Keynote Address
We turn difficult underlying tensions and conflict into resources for deep collaboration and innovation. Watch this keynote at the 2012 Systems Thinking in Action conference with our colleague Cliff Kayser of Polarity Partnerships for some insights into one of the many frameworks we use to advance productive collaboration among diverse stakeholders.
The dynamic tensions (or "polarities") that we explore in this talk show up across our collaborative innovation work, from growing employee ownership to eliminating hazardous chemical exposures to helping health systems in the U.S. leverage their assets to drive community economic development.
Some of the most common tensions that affect Innovation Networks are:
Self-interest & Common Good
Innovation Networks (and societies, for that matter) will thrive over time when personal and societal interests are continually, dynamically, and meaningfully integrated.
Focus on tasks & Focus on relationships
On calls and in meetings, we very carefully design time to do the work AND time to build personal, trusting relationships among participants, which makes future work faster and more effective.
Action orientation & Learning focus
We continually build momentum through taking concrete action to advance toward the group's goal while also advancing a clear "learning agenda" to make the action as productive and high-impact as possible over time.
Head & Heart
We create experiences and design meetings to help participants analyze and understand the system dynamics and to deepen empathy with those who are negatively impacted by the system.
Being intuitive & Being analytical/ data-driven
We naturally get a mix of thinking styles in any group, and our process designers know how to create the conditions for both intuitive and analytical thinking styles to emerge in a group. Our cycle often begins with helping the group develop an intuitive understanding of a whole problem or solution (without much analysis), which we then break down and analyze carefully piece by piece.
Fostering unity & Encouraging debate
Our motto: Differentiate before we integrate. Every person needs to know that his or her wisdom, truth, and perspective is understood and honored before that person can offer generous support. We create space to address differences, especially the deepest differences, and to leverage those differences as key sources of innovation.
Highest leverage actions & easily sellable actions
We work to build “the market’s” appetite for the high-leverage solutions but in the end we can only deliver what the market can be convinced to value (and we also do innovation networks that focus on demand-side dynamics).
Humility & Confidence
Listening deeply to the views and knowledge of others is important to learning and building trust, while asserting our plans or analysis provides clarity, information, and focus for the group (aka Inquiry & Advocacy).
Visionary & Practical
We always maintain a focus on the practical tasks that need to get done on the group. At the same time, we regularly refer back to (and re-confirm) the vision of the group as the meaningful context for all those tasks on the ground.
Being open & Being discreet
When people are open and take risks sharing fears, concerns and hopes with others, it builds trust. At the same time, innovation networks, especially those involving direct competitors, require a very high degree of discretion from all participants.
Simplicity & Deep understanding
It’s important to keep things simple (goals, plans, roles, etc.) so that people can hold what’s happening in their heads. Our intent is that each participant engages in the collaborative work with a clear, compelling single goal at the top of his or her mind. At the same time, every network has a complete and nuanced view of the whole system it's working to change so we can design more robust solutions.
Purists & Pragmatists
In any group working on social change, there are those participants who want to completely overhaul the system and who tend to focus on the desired end state, and there are those who want to pursue practical steps that will work right now and who tend to focus on where things are today. This tension between idealism and pragmatism can literally tear groups apart so we deal with it overtly and proactively in the first or second meeting of an innovation network.
If & How
There are times to focus a group on the question of IF they are committed to a specific goal as a group, and there are times to focus the group on HOW that goal might be accomplished. It’s risky to ask groups to commit to a goal when they don’t truly understand what its means for them (in obvious terms like financial cost and risk, but also in less obvious terms like cultural biases). It’s important to remember that most constituents will only support a new solution if they believe it’s doable (the devil they know versus the devil they don’t), so we do a lot of prototyping and testing of concepts before we ask for an initial commitment.
By naming and working proactively with the underlying tensions that usually drive conflict and polarization, we can not only move beyond these unproductive dynamics, but we can learn to leverage these dynamic tensions as sources of deep innovation.