You know how sometimes a new way of looking at a situation makes it so everything slots into place? That moment when your heart starts to sing “I can see clearly now” occurs? That lightbulb moment? An epiphany experience?
I had one of those moments recently, when I attended a two-day workshop for strategic leaders in government called Leading in Times of Change, masterfully facilitated by Beth Page. Day Two of the workshop focused on Polarities: “Polarities are interdependent opposites that don’t function effectively independently. Because each side is interdependent, you can’t choose one over the other (for long). Polarities each need each other.”
It struck me that libraries are all about managing polarities! The balance between access and control. Service and budgets. Professional and clerical. Equity and individual need. Personal touch and technical efficiency. Stability and change. Centralize and regionalize. Standardize and customize.
Mostly, we see polarities dealt with by two competing forces: the “crusading force”, people who want to move away from the downside of the current pole to the upside of the opposite pole which has not been emphasized lately; and the “tradition bearing force”, people who resist the shift, preservers of what is best from the past and the present.
What we see with this see-sawing effect is an organization either constantly in reactive mode, lurching towards something different with a “damn the torpedoes” approach, or sitting in stagnation and never moving forward. Which end of the swing occurs comes down to who holds the power position. And the power struggle never goes away – it just keeps cycling back over time. But this cycle can waste a lot of time and energy, and it can damage relationships as well.
The problem is in seeing the situation as a “problem to be fixed”, when in fact there is no right answer. Implementing a solution that disregards the other polarity results in a new set of problems and the cycle will eventually come back to the other extreme.
The first step is to identify whether the issue being faced is a problem or a polarity. As Beth explained, problems have one or more right answers or possibilities that are independent from each other. Once a decision is made and implemented, the problem is solved. A polarity is not a problem to be solved, but rather a condition to be managed. “Well-managed polarities leverage the upsides of each interdependent opposite while avoiding the limitations of each.” The trick is to get to the optimal blend of the two poles to ensure the benefits of both and minimize the downsides.
So it’s not about the either/or, but about the and/both. There’s a whole discipline behind this simple idea, initiated by thought-leader Barry Johnson. To learn more, a good starting point is his website and foundational book, Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems.
Library leaders are well-experienced in managing dualities – always looking for solutions that focus on costs and people, stability and change, weaving back and forth across these polarities. Multi-branch library systems have a lot of experience in managing the tensions between standardizing and customizing. Regional library systems, in working with multiple local governments, are well-skilled in managing the cost and quality polarity.
This is a critical time for libraries. Library leaders face new and tougher sets of problems, including: How in an age of rapid technology change and increased user expectations do you create libraries that are as adaptable and resilient as they are focused and efficient? How do we innovate quickly and boldly enough to stay relevant in the digital environment and at the same time meet the needs of our traditional user base? How do we address Digital Divide 2.0, the participatory divide? How do we ensure value in light of society’s increasing demands for transparency and accountability, and the pressure created by mythologies such as library irrelevancy in today’s digital and global economy?
These thorny problems bring polarities to the fore, with heightened awareness. The challenge is to solve problems in the context of polarities, to distinguish between the problem to be solved and the tension to be managed. The potential to bungle smart initiatives and supportive relationships is enormous if we see the polarity itself as the problem.
I am acutely aware that with increasing accountabilities and encouraging integration, we encounter conflicts with the desire for independence. That service to the local community is always a priority over sharing and collaborating with other libraries.
After all, it’s the on-the-ground work with users that is the essence of library service. It’s where individuals receive the help they need to further their own goals. It’s why we’re all so passionate about libraries!
Polarities give us a new framework for dealing with more complex problems. That framework is, increasingly, a collective one — something that we need to keep in mind as we think of how libraries can evolve and thrive in the midst of societal and technological change.
Any efforts to economize on back-room services and realize efficiencies should be motivated by the desire to provide the most and the best for those we serve. To what degree do shared collaborative initiatives enhance the library’s ability to direct more local resources to local service?
How can we ensure that economies, efficiencies and library community-building are realized in collaborative activities, and also that strong local services and connections are maintained and enhanced in the communities served by libraries?