Like yin and yang
This past spring I participated in a conference on “Inherent Tensions in Networks”. The main theme was how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable when working in partnerships. When I work with partners I use a diversity of concepts and methods to support and enhance their work, including design thinking, systems thinking, and group dynamics. But “Polarity Thinking” is one framework I use regularly. Like yin and yang, polarities are interdependent values that support each other.
Polarity Thinking is a term coined by American Barry Johnson in the early 1990s. It describes situations where there is truth and wisdom on more than one side of an issue; each side is incomplete without the wisdom and input of the other. Think of how often we fight about the “right” way to organize, when in fact we need some of both. It isn’t either/or but both/and. Jim Collins describes this so eloquently in his book Good to Great as the “The Tyranny of the OR and the Power of the AND”.
In partnerships, when we get entrenched in one perspective or the other, both sides lose. Partnership leaders must be able to embrace diverse approaches and perspectives to be successful. Partners often face apparent differences and paradoxes: continuity and change, predictability and chaos, self-interest and common good. In partnerships, inherent tensions are often viewed as problems to be resolved once the “correct” answer is found. But when we consider only one direction - either A or B - we only see part of the picture.
The strongest and most innovative partnerships realize it is not either/or decision-making; two contrasting options can be pursued at the same time. To be successful in partnerships, collaborative leaders must leverage the value, diverse thinking and approaches of each partner.
Let’s explore some of the inherent tensions found in partnerships.
Self-Interest & Common Good
The most effective partnerships come together around a common vision/purpose that aims to achieve a common good. The goal is one that none could accomplish on their own. And yet everyone needs to benefit from a partnership or the commitment will not be sustained – especially when times get tough. The most effective partnerships work for both the common purpose AND the enlightened self-interest of partners.
Visionary & Action-Oriented
When working with partners I always maintain a focus on the practical tasks and actions that needs to get done. At the same time, we regularly refer back to (and reconfirm) the vision of the group as the meaningful context for all those tasks on the ground. A famous saying summarizes the importance of this inherent tension: “Vision without action is a dream; Action without vision is a nightmare.”
Usual & Unusual
When forming partnerships, the traditional approach is to choose the most powerful and most visible stakeholders. Effective partnerships intentionally look beyond the usual and seek out “high leverage” stakeholders, often called the unusual suspect partners, who are well positioned to produce innovation and influence others. For example, when forming the Math Minds Partnership, the Calgary Public Library was an influential early partner.
Power & Love
To create lasting change we have to learn to work fluidly with two distinct, fundamental drives that are in tension: power—the single-minded desire to achieve one’s solitary purpose; and love—the drive towards unity. They are seemingly contradictory but in fact complimentary. As Martin Luther King put it, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic.”
Transparent & Discrete
When people are open and take risks, share fears, concerns and hopes with others, it builds trust. Being open, honest and transparent with partners is a vital part of creating powerful long-term relationships. At the same time, discretion is needed. Not everything can or should be shared. The critical balance is the good judgement to know when to use each.
Action-Oriented & Reflective
Partnerships must be action-oriented if they are to achieve the big goals they set out. But partnerships must also learn and adapt as they advance their work. This requires reflection. Partnership benefit from reflective practice that helps to understand what is working and what is not. John Dewey, the famous American education reformer, famously stated, “You don’t learn from experience, you learn from reflecting on that experience.”
Unity & Diversity
Partnerships need to have a shared vision that propels their work forward and acts as glue when the going gets tough (as it inevitably will!). As different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives get blended cognitive diversity will increase. Cognitive diversity is defined as the differences in our thought and problem-solving processes. When I work with partners I ensure we take the time to explore each other’s values and unique, diverse ways of looking at an issue. This diversity is what adds value and drives innovation.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
Every partnership must get comfortable with discomfort. It’s challenging right? But to make the social changes we need we all have to be prepared to step out of our comfort zones and embrace the complex challenge of partnerships – with all their inherent tensions. With a little practice, feeling uncomfortable is something you can get used to – and definitely grow from.
About the Author
Jocelyne Daw is a leading expert in authentic cross-sector partnerships and integration, collaboration and social innovation. She is an Accredited Partnership Broker, Authorized Partnership Trainer and an internationally published author and speaker. She works with leading organizations to design innovative and measurable community strategies and partnerships that creates sustainable value and impact. firstname.lastname@example.org
Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.