In 1967, C. West Churchman highlighted some key factors of unsolvable challenges. He referred to them as “Wicked Problems,” which are: 1) Unsolvable by rational analysis, 2) Systems issues, and 3) Require collective engagement for learning the way to solutions.

Another important voice in the solvability discernment arena is Ron Heifetz, who made the clear distinction between “Technical” problems (which are solvable) and “Adaptive” problems (which are unsolvable). Like Churchman, Heifetz highlights the requirement for using the collective intelligence of people at all levels to learn their way toward solutions. His work focuses on how traditional management strategies are useful in dealing with technical problems, but in situations where beliefs and values come into play, technical “fixes” tend to exacerbate the problem. While the “distinction is a crucial one,” he says, “leadership theory has only begun to address the latter.” In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins refers to this as “the Tyranny of ‘OR’” and highlights the importance of seeing when to tap into “the Genius of the ‘AND.’”

Starting in 1975, Dr. Barry Johnson identified the need to supplement problem-solving thinking (using “either/or”) with polarity thinking (using “both/and”). Polarities are defined “energy systems in which we live and that live within us.” One of the many gifts of polarities is that they work in predictable ways and contain potential for leverage in support of individual and collective well-being. The evolution of the key principles and Polarity MapÔ has resulted in a powerful approach to accelerate collective engagement and learning. Performance is measured in real-time for multiple polarities, for multiple purposes, and at multiple system levels simultaneously (organization, team, and individual levels). The inherent tension is used as a resource to create sustainable competitive advantage referred to as “leveraging,” which is superior to false-choice trade-offs and even to “balancing” (considered a suboptimal goal or measurement outcome).

The business literature in the last half-century has referred to these challenges by other names, such as: Ambidexterity, Competing Values, Contradictions, Dichotomies, Dilemmas, Dualities, Dual Operating Systems, Dual Strategy Cultures, Hybridity, Paradoxes, Tensions, Theory X and Y, and Opposite Strengths – to name a few. In their review, Smith and Lewis (2011) found that in organizational theory, paradox studies have grown, on average, 10% annually between 1998 and 2008. Three quotes summarize this body of research:

“I believe the central leadership attribute is the ability to manage polarity.”
Peter Koestenbaum
Leadership, New and Revised: The Inner Side of Greatness, A Philosophy for Leaders

“If your organization strategy does not account for polarity, then it is not strategic.”
Bob DeWitt and Ron Meyer
Strategy Synthesis

“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two truths in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Problem solving, while necessary and useful for solving problems, does not serve us or others very well when applied to polarities. When we treat polarities as problems to solve, individual and/or collective performance and well-being is undermined by reducing the speed, attainability, and sustainability of our desired outcomes and goals.

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