All Articles Leadership Strategy Using polarity maps to achieve organizational change

Using polarity maps to achieve organizational change

Organizational change brings resistance, and understanding polarities can help you move everyone forward with the new strategy.

4 min read


Using polarity maps to achieve organizational change

SmartBrief illustration

Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Barry Johnson.

It’s time for an organizational change to occur.

You have been clear about present problems that need to be addressed. You have shared a clear vision and explained how the changes proposed will contribute to achieving that vision. You have also been clear about the process for getting everyone aligned in support of the changes. 

All these elements are essential parts of an effective organizational change effort. You have done them well. So, why are some people resisting the change you obviously need?

Image provided by Lead Change via Barry Johnson

2 points of view that need each other

Most change efforts fail, in part, because those wanting to make the change have one point of view, which they believe is the whole picture. However, within all change efforts, there are actually two points of view that are in tension yet need each other — these are called polarities.

In the example above, where one group wants change and the other wants stability, the question isn’t change or stability; it’s change and stability. Why?

This answer can be best discovered by looking at a polarity map.

The change group wants to move from their fear of increasing present problems (-B) to going after a preferred future they value as the solution to the present problems (+C).

The fear of increasing problems and the value or importance of their preferred future, represent their point of view. Both parts are essential in understanding and leveraging this polarity. 

And they are not enough. 

Those stubborn resistors!

Resistance will come from those holding a second and equally important point of view, which they also see as a solution to a problem—this is the group that prefers stability. Their resistance to the change shows up as holding onto the best of the past (+A) and the fear of losing it in the change process (-D).

So, how do you move forward?

The SMALL Process

When you are dealing with any polarity in a business environment, there is a five-step process that will help you convert the resistance to the change into a resource for the change:

  1. Seeing. First, it is important to see that this is a polarity in which And-thinking is required and in which Or-thinking, alone, will be trouble.

  2. Mapping. By identifying the upside (value) and downside (fear) for each group, it’s easier to see where vulnerabilities lie when interdependent values are neglected.

  3. Assessing. Once you have a polarity map, you can assess it on an ongoing basis to make sure you are maximizing both upsides and minimizing both downsides.

  4. Learning. In this step, it’s important to ask what we’ve learned so far. It’s crucial to allow both groups to bring meaning to the assessment results: are their values being respected? Are their fears being exacerbated?

  5. Leveraging. Finally, key stakeholders can create action steps based upon the assessment and learnings to ensure that they are maximizing both upsides and monitoring early warnings to minimize each downside.  

The polarity map is a wisdom organizer

The wisdom is in you and in your organization. If you are dealing with a polarity, there will be wisdom in both points of view. The polarity map gives groups in tension a place to stand: a place where their values and fears can be shared and respected as a resource. 

In any change effort, any conflict or polarization, there will be polarities to leverage. If those polarities are misdiagnosed as a problem to solve, everyone involved is in trouble.

On the other hand, if you can see a polarity at play and put it on a simple polarity map (Seeing and Mapping), it will make a big difference even if you don’t use the remaining three steps of the SMALL process. Polarities are energy systems you can learn to leverage to make a difference in the world.


Barry Johnson is the creator of the Polarity Map and a founding partner of Polarity Partnerships. For more information about And-thinking in a variety of situations, Barry Johnson has a new book: “And, Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma – Volume One: Foundations” HRD Press (2020).

 If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails on leadershipbusiness transformation and HR, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.