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,

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