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Change Your Lens, There is a Polarity to Manage

Recently, my organization stepped up and provided assistance to another organization in a collaborative fashion, in an effort of closing the other organization’s gaps. In reflection, my personnel were intrinsically motivated to help others. There was no bonus or pay involved, maybe a few expressions of “Thank you” that only reinforced the comradery between the organizations. I enjoyed watching my personnel exercising their empowerment in providing insight, action plans, and deficiency management.

The transaction, which was vaguely described to protect the identity of the organizations involved, resulted in me placing myself in the shoes of the personnel employed by the other organization. There were some variables present in the areas of time management, resources, and expertise that were hindering growth. The limiting factors were certainly a challenge. But a challenge for whom? Challenges are opportunities, right? Surely, it was an opportunity for the other organization to close some operational gaps. However, after scratching the surface, it was only a polarity to manage. It was an opportunity to span organizational boundaries to a new partnership. It was an opportunity for individuals who normally operate in a subordinate role to be the subject matter expert and provide leadership to a very thirsty organization. It was an opportunity to disrupt an operating system that fosters organizations operating autonomously. It was the epitome of waiting to beg for forgiveness because it will be easier than asking for permission. Finally, it was an opportunity to step into another’s complex domain and shift the occurrence to the complicated domain for them.

This post is not just another post about the benefits of empowerment, diversity, and change management. We will stay away from adding to the horizontal leadership toolbox in this post. This post is about how we take situations that require empowerment, diversity, and change management and extract the polarities present. This kind of reframing involves reflective inquiry, connecting the ideas of action science and reflection on practice. After incorporating some “what-ifs,” I was able to scratch the surface and see the polarity present; a struggling organization but an opportunity for the organization to grow further than its own boundaries, which have been established by systemic, organizational, political, and human constraints. Scratching the surface further, I could see the opportunity expand further into building and sustaining relationships. Engaging in action inquiry, I took my strong and optimal performing organization and aligned it with the operationally-challenged organization. Through a more strategic lens, the people involved fostered an opportunity to strengthen a region, not just an organization.

Again, looking at what transpired as I engaged in reflective thinking, reflective inquiry, and action inquiry, I could have offered a little knowledge management and engaged in some information sharing with the operationally-challenged organization, in the hopes its leadership would use the information shared with them. In doing so, it still would have been much appreciated and laudable by senior leadership in both organizations. Having a “big picture” vision, accompanied with the desire to build and sustain relationships with the other organization, increased the leadership development on both ends. My subordinate supervisors had a greater opportunity to provide leadership and development to another organization, and the operationally-challenged organization received a more robust training and implementation plan in lieu of merely having information shared with them. In the end, we spanned outside the constraints and strengthened a region. Recently, I searched for another organization with similar challenges, and will be providing the same assistance, which will span the strengthened region even further, much beyond its organizational boundaries.

Being able to reflect, think, inquire and take action with fierce resolve will help span boundaries and strengthen any organization; however, we should narrow in the scope and look at the root of what drove the actions: recognizing the polarities present.

Think about the organizational change that was needed in my transaction, the forces of change were on both ends. Because of the complexities involved, one could say Kotter’s change model in its accelerated format would be highly effective. Even breaking down Kotter’s required steps introduces additional polarities. Developing a sense of urgency for change would trigger different responses, depending on how it’s framed. One may worry or lose steam because of a performance gap or identified deficiency, while another may look at the challenge as an opportunity to strengthen the organization or add creativity and innovation. In circumstances of process improvement, one may say, “We are meeting our mandates, so why change?” While another may say, “We can do better.” Building a volunteer army may look like a cross-functional nightmare to some, but through double-loop feedback others may see the value in building and sustaining relationships. Creating and communicating a vision sometimes appears to be organizational voodoo to the naysayers. Nevertheless, the ones who are visionary and possess the expert and referent power will use the vision to motivate others.

The broad-based action may appear as if the organization is adding more of a workload to some, which it may be, but a different lens will illuminate the fact the organization is moving towards realizing its vision. Celebrating wins and not letting up will also be viewed through two lenses. The naysayers will look at the data as skewed or too premature to substantiate the return on investment, while others will view the wins as progress and a vision being realized. Finally, institutionalizing the change will be measured by the return on investment. Some will view the amount of work involved, and the associated accountability of having to adhere to the change and not see the value, which may be a valid opinion. While others will associate the work involved and a vision that has been realized as productive. Many times the framing of the polarities has much to do with personal and psychological variables, the level in the organization an individual operates from, and the action logic in leadership development he or she is at. Think of the negative charge in each of the abovementioned steps. Changing the “naysayer” involves leadership powers, strategies, and actions that will foster growth – growth on both ends. Through reframing, the challenge became an opportunity, right?

It appears managing polarities first starts with recognizing them. At one time in my leadership development, I only viewed the positive behaviors in Kotter’s model and never considered a multidimensional lens to see polarities to be managed in each step of the model. If an individual or system hindered the change, I only viewed them as a barrier to change. Barriers, based on my training and education, had to be eliminated. Now, viewing barriers requires me to step back and not be so knee-jerk in my response. What positive and negative charges are present? Is this a barrier to change? Or, scratching the surface further, is this a polarity that needs to be managed?

In the Center for Creative Leadership’s article, How to Manage Paradox, identifying a paradox (or polarity) is one of the difficult steps in trying to manage one. According to the article, polarities are unsolvable problems that are recurring in nature, they can polarize individuals into groups, they are potentially positive when managed, and managing one involves beyond the “either/or” logic. Thinking back to my leadership transaction with the operationally-challenged organization, there was a systemic hindrance that prevented the organization from meeting mandates, managing issues, and developing its personnel. Knowledge management may have helped; however, the problem would have been ongoing. In fact, the problem will always be there; however, the intervention of my subordinate leaders will close many gaps, aid with time management, and diminish the pressures of mandates that will now be met through a shared effort. Much like to the article’s assessment of polarities being positive when managed well, the newly formed relationship will strengthen both organizations, along with the infrastructure both operate from.

In reflection, there are some lessons learned from the relationships built from my organization’s intervention. I am not employed by a for-profit business, and am aware many organizations would not want to provide such assistance to a competitor in the market. Yet, in contrary, a Harvard Business Review article, Collaborate with Your Competitors-and Win, illustrates the benefits of for-profit businesses working together. Our interaction could be compared with two schools from two different school districts, with challenges, operating in concert to improve one with significant challenges. Our collaborative approach to polarity management could absolutely take place between military units, schools, healthcare organizations, fundraising organizations, law enforcement, etc., whether they are for-profit or non-profit organizations. It is important to remember the importance of building and sustaining relationships. What was perceived as complex for the other organization was only complicated to my personnel. As we inquire on the “what-ifs,” it is important to set the egos aside and think about broadening the scope used to identify a problem to where it is identifying a polarity, a polarity that will foster stronger organizations through collaborative management.



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