The easiest polarity to understand is breathing. We inhale and exhale in a continuous cycle. Inhaling and exhaling are opposites and we need both. Too much of one and the cycle stops, we stop breathing... that's not good. Too much of the other and the same thing happens. The challenge isn't to find a middle ground where the right amount of inhaling and exhaling is happening at the same time -- which is impossible --, the challenge is to manage the continuous cycle to avoid unnecessary extremes, to watch for warning signs that we've gone too far in one direction and take corrective action. Luckily for us, breathing is on automatic pilot most of the time.
Once I understood the concept, the work-in-progress I had been doing (reinventing the wheel to some extent) acquired a new dimension, and it turned into the visual below:
This represents two different, yet interrelated polarities. On both of these dimensions, it's not an an either/or choice. Both are needed. It's not one or the other, but it's not necessarily about finding the right balance and sticking to it because that wouldn't be very agile either. It's about managing the cycle between the polarities because we are always in motion towards one or the other extremes and at any given time we may need a different mix rather than a constant middle ground. The cycle isn't represented on this diagram.
There are tensions between focusing attention on the past by capturing knowledge from experience through lessons learned and the identification and dissemination of best practices on the one hand, versus focusing on creating new knowledge through innovation in order to address new and evolving challenges for which there is no experience to rely on. Without innovation, reliance on "old" knowledge will prevent the organization from staying competitive and addressing evolving challenges. Without adequate traditional knowledge management focused on "old" knowledge, innovation will fail because it will become an exercise in reinventing the wheel, failing to use the organization's existing knowledge as a solid foundation for innovating.
Another set of tensions is illustrated along the vertical axis. External knowledge sharing (also referred to as outreach) is essential to ensure that the broader industry, including potential clients, are aware of the organization's capabilities and experience. Yet there is very little to share externally without a solid foundation of internal knowledge management. Alternatively, an exclusive focus on internal knowledge sharing would isolate the company from broader networks and interactions that are critical to sustained growth.
Before being introduced to polarities, I thought of these issues as pendulums going from one extreme to the other in a never-ending dance. Now every problem appears to me as a polarity that needs to be managed. Perhaps I'm going too far in that direction. Not every problem is going to be a polarity.
Related resources to understand polarities:
- Center for Creative Leadership, "Are you Facing a Problem or a Polarity"
- Jean Brittain Leslie, Peter Ling Li, and Sophia Zhao, "Managing Paradox: Blending East and West Philosophies to Unlock Its Advantages and Opportunities," Center for Creative Leadership.
- Polarity Partnerships LLC