Beyond Polarity: A Third Way of Thinking

Who really likes polarity anyway? Ok, maybe the TV pundits, but they’re being paid for it. I’m going to go out on a limb and contend that we might tolerate it, be incensed by it, or even get some vicarious pleasure out of it… but we don’t really, at a fundamental level, like it. And yet we can’t seem to get enough from either.

Two Poles

In business, there’s a polarity of another kind. It’s the polar opposites of reliability (analytical thinking) and validity (intuitive thinking). Many companies have a reliability bias where decisions about new products or new ideas are based purely on analytics and the demand for proof. These companies tend to maintain the status quo, scale well, yet they tend to lack innovation. On the other end of the spectrum are companies that exalt what is intuitively valid;,they innovate fast and furiously, but on the other hand, they find sustainable growth and longevity a difficult challenge to master.

A Third Way to Think

Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto (one of the top business schools in Canada), in his new book, The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage, contends there is a third way, which he calls design thinking.

Design thinking balances “analytical mastery and intuitive originality in a dynamic interplay.”

According to Roger Martin, aspects of both analytical and intuitive thinking are necessary, but not enough for optimal business performance. And when taken to polar extremes, they ruin businesses. Maintaining one without the other in counter-balance does not make for a “sustainably advantaged enterprise.”

Aeron Polished Aluminum FrameIn his book, and in a talk hosted by Dev Patnaik, founder and chief executive of Jump Associates, a design strategy firm in San Mateo, CA, Martin provided examples of design thinking companies and leaders such as P&G under the leadership of A.G. Lafley, Apple with visionary leader Steve Jobs, and the De Prees of Herman Miller, the company that designed the now ubiquitous, Aeron chair (you know, the one that looks like it’s half finished and is missing its cushion, but is oddly beautiful and amazingly comfortable).

Design thinkers move along what Martin calls the knowledge funnel from exploring a mystery (a problem that needs solving) to a heuristic (a simple rule of thumb) and then to an algorithm (a formula or code). The beauty of design thinking is that it moves along the funnel efficiently and begins to explore new mysteries once a formula for the first is in place. Far too many companies have gotten stuck along the funnel, only to fail.

So, the question is how do leaders at all levels (and not just the Steve Jobs of the world) become design thinkers?

Three Tools

According to Martin, design thinkers rely on three specific tools to organize their thinking and understand their world:

  1. Observation—Deep, careful, open-minded observation on the lookout for new insights
  2. Imagination—Making an inference based on data gathered through observation and testing it through prototyping
  3. Configuration—Translating the idea into a system that will produce the desired outcome

Beyond the power of the tools themselves is the design thinker’s way of interacting with colleagues operating on polar principles. Design thinkers interact with their reliability colleagues and their validity-based counterparts in several different ways. They have to be flexible and intentional in their interaction in order to bring about the desired results with such variables.

Five Ways

There are 5 specific ways to engineer desired outcomes.

  1. Reframe extreme views as a creative challenge and appreciate the legitimate differences
  2. Empathize with colleagues on the extremes and seek to understand their positions and uncover the range of options for a compelling solution
  3. Communicate on their terms by learning to speak the languages of both reliability and validity
  4. Put unfamiliar concepts in familiar terms using analogy for reliability-based colleagues and sharing data and reasoning (but not conclusions) with validity-based colleagues
  5. Use size to their advantage and design right-sized experiments by turning the future into the past for reliability colleagues (their proof comes from the past so they are more comfortable with incrementalism) and give innovation a chance with validity colleagues (who want to do it all and go big).

Balancing polarity and holding the creative tension between the poles of reliability and validity is the design thinkers’ challenge. From this place, true innovation that solves wicked or intractable problems, and business sustainability (and scalability) springs.

Does your organization’s leader champion design thinking? Are you a design thinker? I’d love to hear stories of what design thinking made possible at your company. And, if you are contemplating the value of design thinking for the first time, I’d love to hear your thoughts on applying it your world.

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Nicole Gnutzman, Principal at Innate Strategies & workshop leader of Effortless Leadership.
She can be reached at or on her blog at

Image Sources: Mindmap by Jon Gabrio of Jump Associates,

Just Do It, Just Doesn’t Cut It Anymore

Just Don't Do It

The culture in America values action over almost everything else. Our desire here to do something, sometimes anything, is strong. Of course, this can be a huge strength, but it can also get us into trouble. And when we get into trouble and don’t get the results we want, we rarely wonder why; instead we blame external forces (someone or something else) and “keep on trucking,” as they say.

Look Before You Leap

Contemplative ThinkingTo reflect before acting is also an action. I’m not talking about “analysis paralysis” here, but rather understanding how things fit together and affect each another in this interconnected world of ours before taking action. Without that clear understanding, we impatiently rush ahead and either come face to face with what Peter Senge, and other systems thinkers, call unintended consequences (and wonder why) or we come to the abrupt realization (when it really matters) that we don’t have what we need (whether that’s the right resources or commitment) to get results.

And this sets us back if we’re lucky, temporarily, and if we’re not, irrevocably. And it just doesn’t have to be that way.

We’ve all heard the old adage, “Don’t just stand there; do something.” Well, perhaps it’s time to turn that around to “Don’t just do something, stand there.” And, perhaps, as Peter Vajda, author, coach and co-founder of SpiritHeart, contends, it’s really just a question of patience.

Impatience “causes us to spend inordinate amounts of time working and re-doing what we did when we were impatient,” which leads to anxiety and stress.

But patience, in this world dominated by action, only makes good sense when it’s accompanied by results. By making a small upfront investment in reflecting on the consequences of your actions before acting, you can save frustration, anxiety, and stress for yourself, and avoid huge setbacks, redo’s, and added (unplanned) costs in your organization.

Results naturally come with this kind of thinking ahead.

Taking the time to make that small upfront investment involves thinking through the implications of your actions first, and I mean really thinking them through:

  • Think about how each thing you do, and each thing you ask others to do, will impact your staff, your stakeholders, management, and others on the impact path (and, if you don’t know or aren’t sure, ask others)
  • Run your ideas out to their logical conclusion over time, and then decide which action benefits not just you, but the organization
  • And then share with everyone impacted by your decision how you got there so they can see what you see and understand where you’re coming from

When you do that, when you take that reflective action, when others see that you are thinking about the impact of your actions and about what’s good the whole of the organization, you’ll be pleasantly surprised just how effortlessly you will achieve the results you want when you most need them.

Have you ever gotten so caught up in just doing something that you ended up somewhere other than where you intended? When unintended consequences happen do you take the time to reflect on why? Have you achieved better results when you’ve thought through the implications of your decisions? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this.

Bookmark Just Do It, Just Doesn't Cut It Anymore

Nicole Gnutzman, Principal at Innate Strategies & workshop leader of Effortless Leadership.
She can be reached at

Leadership: Being Comfortable With the Uncomfortable

Life on a Boat

My husband and I recently decided to change our lifestyle quite dramatically so we could live the life we wanted to live. We’d been talking about it for quite some time, but thought it was impossible.

And then we realized that until we committed to it fully, it wasn’t going to happen just magically. Once we got clear about what we wanted (which wasn’t easy at first), everything began falling into place, which is no mean feat when you include a seven-year-old boy and a nine-year-old dog in the mix. We simply gave up trying to control how it came about, but never wavered on our intention. And we made sure it worked for all of us.

A few weeks later, we found ourselves living half time on our sailboat in Sausalito, and the other half in a cabin in the redwoods near Mendocino. “Wow,” our older friends said with amazement and wonder in their voices. “Cool,” said our younger friends, and they meant it. Not one of them told us we were crazy even though we thought they might (and we secretly suspected we were). One friend even said, “You’re designing your life,” and she was right.

In each case, we could hear in their voices that they wanted the courage to do just that.

It never occurred to me that it would take courage, but it did in the end. We needed courage to give up some things in our lives to gain others (like the convenience of having everything in one place so we could live in two). It took courage to face up to our consumption patterns (there’s only so much room on a sailboat). And it took courage to change our comfortable daily routines to ones that were new and unfamiliar (like filling the water tanks on the boat with a hose so you don’t you run out of water in the middle of a shower). But we needed something more than just courage; we had to become comfortable with the uncomfortable to actually live the life we really wanted.

For deep insight into how we all struggle with uncertainty and discomfort in our lives, and what becomes possible when we accept it, you may find Pema Chodron’s book, Comfortable with Uncertainty an inspiring read.

So, why did we do this? Why did we put ourselves directly in the path of uncertainty and discomfort? What did that make possible for us? And what, more importantly, did we learn?

Compelling reasons for change

Four reasons compelled us to find the courage to make this change:

  1. We wanted to live closer to nature so that all of us, including our seven-year-old, would feel more connected to what naturally gives us life and energy, and to witness strength in adaptability.
  2. We wanted to live into a smaller footprint and be more conscious of being a part of something larger than ourselves, to which we can contribute in a positive way.
  3. We wanted to access our creativity and a state of being where we could be most productive simply by clearing the noise from our heads and simplifying the world around us.
  4. We wanted to live more economically and learn to live with less so we could have more of what we wanted from life.

Learning from our discomfort

Our courage and our direct encounter with the uncomfortable taught us four principles for not just living the life we really want, but for living into that intention in our work life as well.

  1. We get more of what we actually want, often more quickly, by being clear about what we want and yet adaptable about how we get there.
  2. We can make decisions that are good for the whole and still get what we each need.
  3. We can go slow to go fast. When we slow down and simplify complexity, we see more clearly, and as a result we do better work and are more creative.
  4. We are more connected to, and in relationship with, each other when we focus on what really matters and not on the material aspects of life.

And, as we reflected on these principles, we realized that they apply directly to successful leadership as well.

Leading (and living) in this fast-paced, chaotic world of ours far too often becomes a struggle, and a juggling act, to just get things done. We suffer from what Greg Hicks calls Leadershock. When we’re fixated on the doing instead of on what we want to create, we can’t see clearly beyond the next task (or the next crisis); we lose our ability to adapt and be creative; we default to command and control (in an attempt to have certainty, which, of course, fails); and in the end, we, and our organizations, don’t perform at the level we’re humanly capable of.

When leaders are aware of their larger intent, when they act consciously on that intention, and when they stay open to uncertainty, they and their organizations not only succeed, they thrive.

Leadership questions for reflection

As a leader, you may want to reflect on these three questions:

  1. Beyond your organizational goals, what do you care about and want to create as a leader?
  2. What are three reasons you want that for yourself and your organization? Knowing this will help you get even clearer about what you want.
  3. What are the three to five actions you can take that will make what you care about happen?
  4. Can you see yourself acting on your intention, and holding that intention, even when things get uncertain and uncomfortable?

If you want something more for you and your organization, find the courage to get really clear about what that is, and then get ready to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Then you’ll be well on your way to designing the organization you want, and to being the leader you really want to be.

Do you have an example of when you showed courage in your personal life? In your leadership? What can you do to encourage courage in your staff? Please share your courageous experiences. I’d love to hear them.

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Nicole Gnutzman, Principal at Innate Strategies & workshop leader of Effortless Leadership.
She can be reached at

Image Source: Nicole Gnutzman’s Wedding


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