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The Devil in The Details: To Solve or to Leverage? That is The Question For Administrators

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By William Clements
October 29, 2019

The concept of wickedness in the public policy arena is becoming more familiar to public administration and business administration practitioners. The concept of wickedness can be summarized as issues that are ill-formulated, involve stakeholders with conflicting values and occurs when rationality falls short of providing a remedy to the situation. A simple G.A.P. analysis (problem, solution, strategy) is not enough to reach true solutions regarding polarities. Currently, we see these wicked issues appear in the form of global warming, immigration and terrorism. Coincidentally, when viewing issues such as those listed above, it is easy to fall into using problem-solving processes which utilize, “OR,” thinking when, “AND,” thinking is needed as a supplement. In Dr. Barry Johnson’s Polarity Thinking Theory, the dangers of, “OR,” without, “AND,” thinking are exposed and the concept of how to use, “AND,” thinking is introduced.

When addressing broad issues, “OR,” thinking is likely to be the dominant mode of thought due to its effectiveness in many day-to-day problems. However, there is a huge threat of fracturing, isolation and apathy which can be introduced utilizing, “OR,” thinking without supplementing it with, “AND,” thinking. This piece will examine, briefly, how leveraging a polarity can be more effective than attempting to solve a problem. It is important to remember that the goal of, “AND,” thinking is to supplement, “OR,” thinking and not to completely replace it. 

To begin, a problem and a polarity are not created equal. When utilizing Polarity Thinking, a polarity cannot be solved and has many attributes; to surmise, polarities are unsolvable, unavoidable and unstoppable. A problem, on the other hand, can be identified as something that can be solved. Essentially, a polarity cannot be solved, but only leveraged. Leveraging involves the ability to utilize available energy, usually available via organizational tensions, to maximize advantages while ensuring that the remedy does not position the organization on the downside of the opposite pole. A polarity map consists of four quadrants. The four quadrants can be described as +A (positive attributes of one pole), -B (negative attributes of same pole), +C (positive attributes of an opposing pole), and -D (negative attributes of an opposing pole). An illustration of the polarity map can be found here.

Arguably, in the areas of both business and government there are similarities between the tensions that must be channeled. Effectively acknowledging and leveraging both negatives and positives of both poles will allow the organization to better position itself and avoid needless transitions between the opposite poles which appear as a natural tendency to correct the problem. This usually results from over-using, “OR,” thinking to the neglect of, “AND,” thinking. These transitions usually come at the expense of infighting, employee turnover, silos and micromanagement.

Some readers may be asking, “What are the similarities between government and the private arena?” The question is well-founded but if we were to take a brief academic view through the conceptual lens of Conflict Theory, some important similarities will present themselves. I would first like the opportunity to introduce Conflict Theory as suggested in Marxist philosophy. The major takeaway from this theory, for the purpose of this article, is the basic proposition that individuals and groups within society will work to maximize their own benefits. Oftentimes, each pole will be motivated by their own collection of fears which can be leveraged effectively. This motivation is much more than what appears at the surface. Some may assume that stubbornness or ignorance is the major culprit. The truth, however, is much more complicated. Psychologically, the role of loss aversion has been researched and documented extensively. Loss aversion posits that there is a human trait of preferring to avoid losses as opposed to acquiring gains. As suggested in much research, during the process, loss aversion could quite possibly appear in the discussion phase of polarity thinking. Luckily, the work of Dr. Johnson has recommended having stakeholder participation to aid in avoiding these possible pitfalls.

As public administrators and business leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that our employees and constituents are not mere casualties of traditional tensions between polarities that exist in our organizations. It is time for leaders to embrace the transition from, “OR,” thinking to an approach focused on, “AND,” even if only in a supplementary fashion. It is important for us to remember that the devil may be in the details and, “OR,” thinking only works to keep important details hidden strengthening the wickedness of the process.


Author: William Clements, Ph.D., is a Professor of Criminal Justice and Psychology at higher education institutions. He possesses a Bachelor of Science degree in Justice Studies, a Master of Science degree in Forensic Psychology, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Public Policy and Administration. He is also a Fellow at the Institute for Polarities of Democracy. He has served in the field of public service for a total of 12 plus years and is a well-read enthusiast for topics of economics, politics, homeland security, and most of all, public policy. Email: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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