Cliff Kayser

The “Either/Or” and “Both/And” Thinking Distinction – Just Overcomplicating Things?
by Cliff Kayser
Yes, if “fixes that fail” and steadily increasing individual, team, and organizational dysfunction is O.K.
No, if synergistic positive reinforcing cycles of sustainable high-performance is desired.
Even a cursory review of the business literature today highlights that the old ways of doing business aren’t working like they used to. One reason is rooted in the failure to make the distinction between two types of thinking -- “Either/Or” problem solving or “Both/And” managing of interdpendent values While the two thinking modes have always been there, “Either/Or” thinking has been the dominant and default mode. However, the speed of change and complexity of the business environment today makes awareness and skill in knowing when and how to use both types of thinking a key to success of leaders, teams and organizations.
Jim Collins is one of many writers who discusses interdependent pairs and refers to thinking exclusively in Either/Or terms as “The Tyranny of the Or.” While “Either/or” thinking is useful and necessary when the situation calls for it, its current overemphasis is creating avoidable dysfunction in our organziational, economic, political and geo-political, social systems. “Both/And” thinking is a supplement and compliment to “Either/Or” thinking and involves looking at interdependent pairs of values we in the Polarity Management community call, “polarities.” Polarities can’t be solved in the traditional “final” sense that problems can -- only managed. Collins and Porras in their book Built to Last found that successful, visionary companies all operate in what they call “The Genius of the And,” the ferocious insistence that they can and must have both at once.
The Research is Clear – Great Leaders and Organizations Make the Distinction and Benefit from It
Business literature in the last 50 years reference interdependent values pairs in various ways: polarities paradoxes, competing values, dilemmas, tensions, etc. However, all of them are essentially discussing the same phenomenon. Barry Johnson author of the book Polarity Management has developed a practical and useful approach for identifying and managing polarities – providing leaders, teams, and organizations with a process for the “HOW.”
The Characteristics of Polarities:
• Have interdependent alternatives.
• Ongoing and oscillate infinitely.
• Have no definitive end point as problems do.
• Not solvable, they have to be managed.
Polarities contain two equally valid and necessary truths necessary to optimize the situation over time.
Some examples of typical polarities that leaders face are:
• cost and quality
• individual and team
• structure and flexibility
• plan and act
• idealistic and pragmatic
• act and reflect
• effective and efficient
• stability and change
• centralize and decentralize
Characteristics of problems:
• Problems are usually independent and therefore they can be solved.
• Once problems are solved they tend to go away, they don’t re-occur over time.
• There is a definite end point where you can say that the problem is solved.
• Problems are easily isolated and stand alone.
Problems have one right answer that provides a solution.Examples:
2+2=4 is correct
2+3=4 is incorrect
Great leaders, teams and organizations embrace the sweetspot – the “It” – that results from the ability to distinguish between the two and to increase the speed, attainability, and sustainability of change efforts. Instead of fighting the tension, they embrace interdpendent values as opportunity to create high-performance. The irony of using resistance as a resource is central to managing polarities, but is counter to conventional thinking and the norms of most organizations. I’m often asked, “Isn’t this distinction just overcomplicating things?” My answer is always the same, “Are negative oscillations, win/lose outcomes, and zero-sum games simplifying things?” A leader, team or organizational system is free to choose the devil it knows. However, today’s business environment doesn’t tolerate mismanaged polarities for long – especially when the competition may be managing well. And, they don’t go away by ignoring them.
How to Create a Polarity Map to Manage Polarities
Barry Johnson developed the polarity map to make polarities explicit so that they can be effectively communicated, understood and managed. The first step in defining and managing a polarity is to first find out if you have a problem to solve or a polarity to manage. Remember, the key difference between the two is that a polarity is differentiated by the interdependency. The following questions may help with the distinction:
• Are there two necessary upsides, the management of which contributes to the system’s benefit?
• Are the neutral or positively named poles interdependent in that they depend on and need each other over time?
The breathing metaphor can be helpful here – think of Inhaling and Exhaling, which has two upsides that benefit the system, and two downsides that result from overemphasis on one pole and/or neglect of the other pole.

Well and Poorly Managed Polarities
A poorly managed polarity occurs when there is an over focus on one pole to the neglect of its interdependent value pair. This kicks-off a predictable cycle of steadily increasing dysfunction and is not sustainable. Often, overemphasis on a value of an interdependency is a result of overuse of a key strength, an extreme preference for a particular value pole, or a preference/fear combination.
Effectively manage a polarity requires some training and practice – or many years of experience from hard knocks. One thing is for sure, however – the polarity itself isn’t going anywhere. You can manage it poorly or well, but as long as the system that is experienceing it is viable and in existance there is a choice and opportunity to manage it differenctly.Managing polarities well achieves the advantages of both upsides, minimizes the effects of the downsides, and is sustainable over time. The system benefits from the tensions which lead to achievement of the higher purpose that both poles and their upsides share.
The keys to managing polarities are:
1) Seeing the whole picture,
2) Mapping the tension,
3) Tapping the energy = high-performance, and
4) Tracking – what gets measured gets managed and will be sustainable over time.

Polarities are best defined by engaging stakeholders in discussion about the tension in question and how the tension affects them. The group can then explore the polarity and create their own polarity map using these steps:
1. Create a group of diverse individuals to define the polarity in group discussion.
2. Define the challenge that the organisation is dealing with.
3. Identify neutral or positive names for each pole.
4. Gain clarity about the purpose and consequences of managing the tension well or poorly.
5. Identify the upsides and downsides of poles.
6. Discuss the dynamic of the polarity to gain an understanding of how it works in the particular system
7. Identify Action Steps and Early Warning Signs to maximize upsides and minimize downsides
8. Identify the Higher Purpose that both upsides contribute to and the Deeper Fear/s that both downsides contribute to.
9. Assess, monitor and course correct over time as you consciously manage the polarity.
If you suspect that chronic “sea saws” in your organization or team are a result of one or more mismanaged polarities, you may be right. Please call for free one hour diagnostic, 202/494-2849 or e-mail

Washington, DC - 8 yearss ago