Finding a Third Way: Polarities in Organization Development

This post was shared by Brian Emerson, PhD- faculty of the Executive Certificate in Organization Development Consulting & Change Leadership in the Institute for Transformational Leadership.  

Change leaders and consultants are often approached to help organizations shift “from” one state “to” another. Framing change initiatives in this way can be a setup for failure.

  • We want to go from centralized to decentralized.
  • We need to move from being so structured to being more creative and innovative.
  • We want our teams to shift from a local perspective to thinking globally.

Approaching these situations with an either/or mindset leads to the dreaded “pendulum swing” which wastes resources, dampens morale, and forecasts doom for a change effort. For this reason, one of the most valuable skills change leaders and consultants can bring to organizations in the 21st Century is the ability to help systems make sense of their reality with a both/and perspective.

What is a Polarity?  (Video length: 4:47)

One way to do this is to use polarities as a frame when leading change efforts. Polarities help  practitioners and leaders design change initiatives that bring about a new state without losing the benefits of the current state — and that can be the difference between success and failure.

Learning to use polarities helps consultants and internal leaders look at problems differently, ask different questions, hold different conversations, and, ultimately, help organizations create more sustainable realities:

  • How do we get the benefits of being decentralized without losing the efficiency and clarity associated with being centralized?
  • How can we be more creative and innovative without losing the good things about our structured culture?
  • How can our teams adopt a global mindset without losing the benefits of thinking locally?

The Georgetown Organization Development Consulting & Change Leadership (ODCCL) program is one of, if not the only, change leadership program in the country that incorporates navigating polarities as a key thread and learning objective. The concept is woven throughout the program to ground participants in how polarities show up in all levels of systems (starting with the self) and at each phase of the change process. This focus helps students become change agents who ask the questions that lead to sustainable, meaningful, and successful change. If you would like to learn more, join us. Application deadline February 15th.

One thought on “Finding a Third Way: Polarities in Organization Development”

  1. Brian,
    Thanks so much for naming the importance of recognizing polarities in systems. As an Organization Development Practitioner and Coach, I have found that the ability to recognize and navigate polarities to be a huge value-add to my work. “Also/And” thinking is a must if change it to be transformational!

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