Updated: Jul 20, 2022
Sometimes you need to change your approach
When I watch the news, read social media, or listen to arguments about how to do something, I am struck by how far we’ve gone into the land of right vs. wrong. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like we’re just passing through. Instead, it seems we’ve built permanent structures and are settling in for the long haul.
An example: U.S. Politics
To understand what I mean, you need to look no farther than the US political scene. In a two-party system, there is meant to be a constructive conflict between adversaries that results in largely beneficial outcomes for the citizens the two parties serve. Working through the merits of different viewpoints allows people to come to better solutions for tricky questions like “How much should the government spend on social services?” or “When should the federal government make laws vs deferring to state government?”
Unfortunately for U.S. citizens, the adversaries have transformed into enemies. Instead of constructive conflict with productive results, we now have regular battles to see which party can come out on top. The topic seems to matter less and less as time goes on… the language is usually about winning instead of serving the citizens.
Policy making in America is approaching all-out war, where victory is paramount, “compromise” is a dirty word, and virtually any issue or development can become a weapon for bludgeoning the other side. David A. Moss, Harvard business review, march 2012 issue
Ironically, when you lose sight of the goal you are trying to achieve and focus on the act of winning at all costs, everyone ends up losing in the long run. The citizens lose first, then the politicians lose when the citizens are tired of losing.
Battlefields exist at work too
Unfortunately, this problem isn’t limited to politics. We see this behavior in organizations as well. It is common to see departments focus on their needs and desires at the cost of overall business outcomes. Consider the time you’ve spent in discussions about prioritization at work. When is the last time you came out feeling as if everyone could accurately and selflessly compare their request amongst all the rest? I am guessing the answer is “Not often” or “Never.”
We see methodological ideologists bash ideas without any recognition of the struggle that led to its creation, what it might be trying to achieve. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, just search for posts about SAFe on any social media outlet. Most of the detractors have valid points at the core of their arguments, but I’d wager a bet there is a correlation between the level of vehemence in their arguments and their blindness to anything that might be good in SAFe.
Methods aren’t alone in being a target. We do this with tools as well. Everyone has tools they love to hate so much that they can no longer recognize any value that it might actually provide. Jira seems to be the most popular target these days.
Let’s face it, we do need to know the downsides of the things we love. Knowing the limitations of a thing helps us use that thing properly. But the inverse is true also. If you are going to be a detractor of something, understanding the value it might bring to specific contexts is important to recognize. If you are going to be a detractor, its best to be specific about the context you are speaking from. Is it just one specific context you have a problem with or are you convinced that this thing is bad in all contexts?
In the long run, we don’t serve the public with tweetable, snarky quips. We serve them with a reasoned, minimally-biased look at whatever we are commenting on.
What we need is a balance
We can’t wait for someone else to act to begin to restore sanity. We all have a part to play. It starts with realizing that “not everything is a problem to be solved, some things are situations to be managed,” as Barry Johnson says in his book Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems.
This means that there is not always a right or wrong. Sometimes there is only a balance to be found between two opposing, yet valuable, forces. In Sweden, we call this balance Lagom and it is something that we have to discover in each specific context.
When I first started thinking about this I began creating a Spectrum Thinking Worksheet to help people identify what balance looks like. It includes writing down the following info:
The opposing forces (extremes) at play
Why it is important to balance them
The value that each brings
The negative consequences of over-focusing on one extreme
What it looks like when you get it just right
One of the things I want to help people realize is that balance doesn’t mean settling for average, or splitting the difference. Finding lagom means finding the place of contentment or equilibrium. This balance should be sustainable. And, like with a fulcrum, where you find this balance is highly dependent on the makeup of the forces at the poles. It may be heavily weighted towards one side or another, depending on your context. If you explore the same spectrum in two different contexts you will likely find that lagom looks different in each.
Keeping your balance
Once you have explored the spectrum between, and including, two extremes, a Polarity Map helps us visualize how these forces are really interdependent pairs. How, if you over-focus on one area, hoping to achieve the positive effects, you can tumble out of balance into the negative consequences you were working really hard to avoid.
I was really excited to find this concept of polarity mapping as it overlaps quite a lot with my work on finding Lagom. Like with our Spectrum Thinking Worksheet, polarity mapping asks you to identify:
early warning signs that you are getting out of balance.
action items that you can and will take if the early warning signs you anticipated start to appear.
But, thinking through where Lagom is on a spectrum gives you some particular insights about balance that you might not get using polarity maps alone.
Using one or both of these tools will help you switch your default from binary thinking to spectrum thinking and understand how to find a balance between two valid, yet opposing viewpoints.
Don’t wait for someone to make the first move. It is up to us to bring sanity back to our lives. Perhaps your move will inspire others or show them how to make a difference. Identify a situation in which you’re being too dogmatic or ideological, to the detriment of your well-being or that of those around you. Then, use the Spectrum Thinking Worksheet alongside a Polarity Map to a) articulate the value of the opposing perspective, b) explore the spectrum between and determine what balance looks like, and c) anticipate early warning signals of falling out of balance and action items you’d take to get back to lagom.