Riley Resource Group faced a choice.

The group, which is made up of agricultural services companies Feed Energy Co., FEC Solutions, Decision Innovation Solutions and Riverhead Resources, was readying itself to move into a new building. The question arose: How could  Riley Resource Group be good stewards of the community while still being productive as a workplace? In other words, should the group be business-centric, or community-centric? 

The solution: Riley Resource Group built a 107-person meeting area in the lobby of its new building that, when furnished, will allow people from a nearby senior living center to gather and have coffee once or twice a week. It’s an example, said Bob Riley, founder and CEO of the Des Moines-based group, of utilizing a concept called polarity thinking, a concept that business leaders in Des Moines are using to find balance in their management practices. 

Polarity thinking is a belief that most opinions, concepts or strategies are on one end of a “pole,” and for optimal result, solutions should include up sides of for both ends of the pole.

Barry Johnson, the founder and chairman of Polarity Partnerships and a national leader in teaching the concept of polarity thinking, was in Des Moines during the week of the World Food Prize events last year. Johnson, with the help of a group of local business people - Riley included - shared the message of polarity thinking with about 350 people. 

To further understand the concept, consider an example. Johnson uses the example of a runner training for a marathon. One pole is activity, and the opposite pole is rest. Though those are opposite activities, too much of one without enough of the other will derail training efforts.

Or take an example commonly seen in businesses: decentralized parts vs. the centralized whole. On one hand your organization has many departments or parts that need freedom; on the other hand, they all make up your company as a whole. If your departments work too much in silos, there is a disconnect between different parts of the company. If they are too reliant on directives from the top, they don’t operate as freely or get as much work done. The trick is to find the upside of both: well-functioning, high-achieving departments that work together for the good of the organization.

In other words, it’s not an either/or proposition. An organization needs both the part and the whole.

There are other common examples of those polarities, including “task and relationship,” “profitability and growth,” “cost and quality” and “continuity and transformation.” In leadership qualities, common polarities include being “clear and flexible,” “visual and grounded” and “self-assured and humble.” 

“In our company, we have 20 instances of polarity going on every day,” Riley said. Riley is also the leader of a group called the Midwest Polarity Initiative, which brought Johnson to Iowa. 

But, in all examples, Johnson says, one pole without the other eventually leads to the negative effects of both poles.

Think of it as an energy system with four elements. Each pole in the energy system has a positive, and each has a negative. All four of those elements will always be present, but the trick is to maximize the positive effects of each pole and minimize the negative effects.

By focusing too much on one pole to the neglect of the other, you will experience the upside of one and the downside of the other. Over time, you will experience the downside of both. 

Again, take the example of running a marathon. If you focus too much on activity to the neglect of rest, you are more likely to push yourself too hard in training and risk injury. If you focus too much on rest to the neglect of training, you are likely to not push your body enough, and risk not being able to run the full 26.2 miles on race day. Either way, you won’t achieve your goal of running a marathon.

In business, if you focus too much on individual initiatives to the neglect of overall company goals, you risk a lack of communication and a “silo” effect. If you focus too much on overall company goals to the neglect of individual initiatives, you risk a lack of innovation or individual initiative. 

“What (polarity thinking) allows me to do is see both sides of an issue,” Riley said. “See that both are right from one perspective or another. ... I think it allows me to be more of a bridge-builder.”

Polarity in action

Tips and tricks to recognizing and dealing with polarities in your business.

Think about things in pairs. 
For most business practices or values, there’s an opposite practice or value. Johnson worked with one international company that had just gone through a comprehensive process defining its company values. “I said, ‘By any chance, are those values laid out in pairs?” Johnson said. “What happened was, they came up with some possible values pairs, and they revisited all these focus groups with the values pairs to get their input. Universally ... they felt relieved when they saw the other values show up.” One such value was respect for employees. What was missing Accountability.

Map out the positives and negatives.
Each pole in a polarity has positives and negatives, so understanding what those are helps a leader see both sides of an issue. 

Look for early warning signs. 
Once you have polarities mapped out, it becomes easier to see negative warning signs of focusing too much on one pole. That makes it easier to adjust slightly as to not neglect that pole.