Processed with MOLDIV

Processed with MOLDIV

The above quote comes from Garmston & Wellman (2013, p. 318) who suggest that leaders need to ask this question when faced with an organizational challenge.

The following post describes a powerful Adaptive Schools tool called “Polarity Management” which  honours diverse views and liberates energy in a positive direction. It is definitely one of my favourite strategies because of the powerful impact it can have to shift a group’s focus and gain momentum.

When we, as school leaders, are doing the important work of unifying our schools towards collective action, conflict between various points of view can emerge. Some groups may want to take one course of action, for example, while another is opposed and sees another choice as best. Quite quickly there can be two sides in battle. We, then,  find ourselves trying to approach the situation as if we are solving a problem when in fact, it is a polarity we need to manage well.

Barry Johnson (1996) offers his principles and a process for managing polarities in a positive manner. The first thing we need to do is identify if we are trying to solve a problem or manage a polarity. A problem to be solved has a definite right answer or a few right answers. Alternately, if the challenge is a polarity, there is not one right answer; you can’t pick one side and neglect the other.

An easy to understand analogy that Johnson uses is to consider inhaling and exhaling; it is an impossibility to inhale without the need to exhale. Polarities are challenges that don’t have an end point and both poles need to be considered. Through a polarity mapping exercise groups can identify courses of action that honour both poles.

As a further example, at Arden Elementary, we were working towards implementing a Response to Intervention (RTI) model school wide. As we were making steps to implement RTI,  some preferred to work on their own more than collaborate to address learning needs through RTI.  

I sensed some negative energy around the topic of RTI implementation. I wondered how we could honour professional autonomy without it becoming an exit strategy and dissipate our momentum with RTI. With support of the school principal, we facilitated a Polarity Management process.

As we began, I introduced the challenge and described it as a polarity that we needed to manage well. In summary, I shared that at Arden Elementary, we are not autonoumous all of the time and we don’t collaborate all of the time. Based on who we are, we may have  preferences for autonomy or for collaboration. I asked the group, “As we consider our different preferences and RTI implementation, how can we manage this polarity well?”

Next, I facilitated the polarity mapping by asking the questions below and recording the group’s ideas in the quadrants below. On one side of the map was the autonomy pole while on the other side was the collaboration pole.

1) What are all the positive results for focusing on collaboration? These ideas were recorded in the top right quadrant.

2) What are all the negative results of over-focusing on collaboration? These ideas were recorded in the bottom right quadrant.

3) What are all the negative results of over-focusing on autonomy)? These ideas were recorded in the bottom left quadrant.

4) What are all the positive results for focusing on autonomy? These ideas were recorded in the upper left quadrant.

Once the quadrants were completed, we worked to agree on a higher purpose, recorded at the top, and a deeper fear, recorded at the bottom.


 Next, I drew the infinity symbol that was mostly in the upper quadrants but dipped into the bottom quadrants. I shared that the symbol indicated where we needed to focus our energy; we needed the positive aspects of both to manage this polarity. Through looking at our mapping and through dialogue, we talked about ways we could manage the polarity.

There was a significant shift in the group’s awareness. The negative energy had dissipated and our RTI implementation plan moved forward together. This was powerful.

The key question to ask is, “Is this a problem to be solved or is it an ongoing polarity to be managed well?”