Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems

Wicked problems can keep us up late at night. We’ve all been there.  We thought we got something solved only to have a new issue emerge which we now try to resolve.  Then once that’s solved, the other issue returns again!  What’s going on?

Sometimes there isn’t a definitive solution. Even with all the resources in the world, we can’t solve this problem for good.
This problem is a polarity of values to manage. Over focusing on one value leads to focusing on the other value, for example: cost vs service, quality vs speed, or innovation vs consistency. What is needed is the best of both values and approaches. When either‐or answers aren’t clear, it’s because the choices may actually be interdependent.

It’s like breathing. We can’t decide to breathe in, without being equally committed to breathing out.  Well… not for long anyway. Inhaling is essential and feels good at first when the oxygen rushes in. But within a few seconds we sink into the downside of inhaling, feeling the overwhelming tension to exhale, and expel all the carbon dioxide accumulating in our lungs.  And so the cycle goes.  Leaders are the stewards of organizational breathing.
As an executive coach, I see this dynamic in the questions leaders often bring up in their coaching sessions:

“Should I focus more on getting results, or developing the people on my team?”
“Is it better to build my individual business unit, or focus on results of the entire organization?”
“How important is it to be innovative vs improving standardization?”
“What rewards create better engagement – rewarding Individual results or overall team results?”

Some other common polarities include the tensions between:
Polarity image

There are two key principles to keep in mind when dealing with the dynamics of a polarity:
1.    Polarities are not problems to solve, but rather tensions to manage.

Polarities cannot be solved with traditional problem solving because there isn’t a right answer.  Attempting to solve these kinds of tensions burns tremendous organizational energy.  Most of us are wired as managers to try to solve problems by finding the right answer. It was ground into us early at school, and then reinforced at work.  There is a legitimate place for this kind of thinking, but it doesn’t work with polarities.  When we encounter polarities that don’t have a “right answer,” it’s tempting to take a position pro or con on some aspect of the polarity.

Let’s take centralization/decentralization as a common challenge in organizations.  There are benefits and downsides from both poles of this tension.   Centralization creates efficiency and integration, but too much centralization reduces flexibility and closeness to the customer.  Decentralization creates local empowerment, but too much decentralization can turn into silos and lack of coordination.

We may advocate for centralization or for decentralization.  The folks advocating for the opposite pole become “those people who don’t get it.”  And off we go, sucking up time and energy and damaging relationships by trying to solve something that is not solvable in this way.

2.    Neither pole of a polarity is sustainable without its interdependent opposite.

Leaders need the optimal blend of the two poles to yield the upsides of both as much as possible while minimizing the downsides.  This is not easy!
When managing polarities, leaders need a framework that allows them to enjoy the upsides of both of the poles of the polarities, as much as possible, for as long as possible.  This gives the organization a competitive advantage over a competitor which manages the polarity as a problem, and lurches over time from pole to pole, with the predictable downsides.

If you’re curious to learn more, Barry Johnson’s book entitled, “Polarity Management” is an invaluable resource for understanding and tackling polarities.  It’s better to accept that a polarity will need managing over time and to engage the organization in a conversation about what this might look like.  Building in checks and balances that flag movement too close to one value/approach while neglecting the other; training people in how to think about and manage polarities from a “both/and” perspective; and identifying structures, policies and practices to assure balance, are all critical disciplines.

In upcoming blog posts I will share how to use the polarity management framework to tackle some of the challenges, starting with the ongoing tension between being clear and decisive, or being flexible and open as a leader.

Russell Hunter


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *