Original image by Tola Brennan

Earlier this month I attended a training workshop with a team of facilitators whose work I really admire. Their organization is called CoCreative, and they call their method Collaborative Innovation. As founder Russ Gaskin puts it, this is the art of “helping people who don’t know each other, and often don’t like each other, solve complex problems together.”

Over the years, they have used this approach to help leaders from across the solar value chain radically scale up solar energy installations; a coalition of manufacturers, labor and environmental organizations, and industry and government leaders work on eliminating workplace exposure to harmful chemicals in electronics manufacturing; and several community-scale networks of educators, social service providers, community leaders, advocates, parents, and other community members to dramatically improve educational outcomes, community health, the experiences of children in the foster care system, and other thorny challenges.

I’ve been following CoCreative’s work — and the excellent resources they make available online — for some time now. One of the things that first attracted me to their work was the way they draw on facilitation tools that I’ve long used and combine them with other techniques to create a whole framework for addressing thorny systemic problems that require bringing together diverse people from across the system in need of transformation.

One of their core tools is the notion of managing polarities in group work. I first encountered polarity thinking when co-writing a book on facilitation tools for groups in conflict. Some conflicts that groups encounter — such as struggles over resources or episodes of broken trust — can be resolved through mediation, negotiation, and relationship repair. But many conflicts — especially those that recur or that resist resolution — are underlain by a polarity that can only be managed, not settled one way or the other.

In these cases, the two sides of the conflict hold complementary values that group members weight differently. Common examples include innovation versus tradition, clear structure versus flexibility, and more versus better. Either value by itself has its positive impacts, but pursued to extreme without its complement on the other side of the polarity, it has costs and risks that can drag the group into unwanted consequences.

In our training, Gaskin introduced this dynamic using a polarity we all manage instinctively thousands of times a day: inhaling and exhaling. Gaskin asked us all to inhale and hold our breath. Then he just started talking.

At first when we inhale, Gaskin pointed out, the effects are entirely positive. Our blood is oxygenated. We feel renewed. But very quickly, if we insist on only inhaling, we start to feel less comfortable. Our blood fills up with carbon dioxide, and the urge to exhale – at this point he did urge us to exhale — gets stronger and stronger.

Once we exhale, we feel pretty good. We’ve expelled the carbon dioxide, releasing the tension of holding our breath. But again, if we if we stay too long on the exhale side of the polarity, we start to get uncomfortable, then light-headed, and then worse, as we become more and more depleted of oxygen. The urge to move back to the other side of the polarity and inhale becomes stronger and stronger.

A polarity can be diagramed as four quadrants containing the benefits and risks of focusing on either polarity alone. When we try to focus on one side of the polarity at a time, we end up tracing out an infinity loop across the quadrants, first experiencing the upside and then the downside of favoring each pole on its own, until its costs impel us to shoot over and focus on the other pole. Groups that don’t perceive the underlying dynamic can get trapped in conflicts over the downsides of each other’s preferred value, generating a downward spiral Gaskin cheerfully labeled “Die” for the inhale/exhale polarity.

On the other hand, when both sides of the polarity are worked in a harmonious rhythm, we can thrive. Fortunately, when it comes to breathing, our bodies understand instinctively how to do this, and it’s only when we deliberately control our breath that we even notice the polarity in action. But in collaborative work there are many polarities where individuals and even groups tend to strongly favor just one side or the other.

To explore the dynamic further, we broke up into two groups to work through polarities that CoCreative has found commonly plague multi-stakeholder networks trying to solve complex problems. I went with trainer Heather Equinoss to work through quick wins versus systemic change, while another group worked with Gaskin on a polarity that figures prominently in many policy debates: individual initiative versus collective action.

We gathered with Equinoss in front of a large sheet of butcher paper that had four quadrants ruled onto it and the words “quick wins” and “systemic change” scrawled on Post-Its in small ovals. Starting in the upper left quadrant, above “quick wins”, Equinoss asked us to list some of the benefits to a group that focuses on achieving quick wins. We called out some: galvanizing momentum, gaining credibility, renewed funding, and creating a sense of solidarity and efficacy.

But when a group focuses only on quick wins, there are costs, unintended or not. They can inhibit bigger change, creating a false sense that the problem is “solved”, while really perpetuating the same underlying dynamics that created the problem in the first place. They may also effectively exclude people who offer a deeper critique of the problem. But a group that focuses only on systemic change is not in any better shape. On the plus side, they can come to a deeper understanding of the problem and the feedback loops that reinforce it, be more inclusive in their process and bring more diverse voices to the table, and create larger, more sustainable impact. But focus only on this pole and they risk analysis paralysis, frustration, burnout, and network fatigue.

The death spiral that comes from focusing on either side alone is pretty clear: loss of momentum, credibility, and resources —the fate of many collaborative efforts. Equinoss identified this as the Greater Fear beneath both downsides of the polarity: fear of failure, fear of not making the impact the network seeks. However, by combining quick wins and systemic change, the group can attract more resources and more participants as their success becomes visible, and thereby achieve both more concrete wins and, over time, greater and broader systemic change. Equinoss called this the “GPS” of the group: its Greater Purpose Statement, what they really aim to and can achieve when they work the polarity really well.

Then Equinoss did something I had not seen before: she drew a large diagonal rectangle cutting across the upper right and lower left quadrants, enclosing the benefits of systemic change and the costs of seeking quick wins. “People tend to have tunnel vision,” she said. “They see only one diagonal of the polarity, the strengths of their preferred value and the limitations of the other.” Some people see only the positive potential of systemic and belittle attempts at quick wins, while others — Equinoss drew another rectangle — focus only on quick wins and discount efforts at systemic change. It’s the tunnel vision, not the polarity itself, that gets us into conflict.

When Equinoss and Gaskin work with a new network, they often introduce the notion of polarities early on, calling them creative tensions to be worked. In addition to the strategic polarities we worked, they also identify tensions within the collaborative process itself, such as learning versus doing, solving problems versus building relationships, and going deep versus thinking broad.

Although they don’t usually work through the entire process that we did in the training, they find that simply introducing the notion of these polarities and encouraging the group to learn to hold them as a tension that can help generate new thinking, rather than a conflict to be resolved, frees the group up to move forward productively. I’ve also had groups in conflict literally walk the polarity they are struggling with, laying out the four quadrants of impacts on the floor, moving through them and articulating together how the focus on the upside and downside of each value are showing up within their conflict.

CoCreative also uses polarity thinking to help network designers identify good collaborative participants, looking for individuals who can internally balance polarities such as being both action-oriented and reflective, and holding expertise about their portion of the system along with openness and curiosity where they know less.

Increasingly the complex social problems we face — whether at the local, national, or global level — are system problems, meaning that we need to bring very diverse stakeholders with different perspectives together to address them. Learning to recognize polarities in action and leverage them as creative tensions that can help propel the group forward rather than bog it down can be a key skill to make the difference between effective collaboration and frustration.