Navigating complexity: when either/or just won’t do

In life and work we are constantly faced with choices – do X or Y, choose A or B, take direction C or D.  Our changing contexts can bring different apparent dilemmas to the fore – perhaps between enough control and enough freedom when hybrid working beckons, or between performance levels for organisational survival and those for staff wellbeing and/or retention, or between reacting to constant surprises and looking to the longer-term.  This article explores the challenge of such choices and getting out of the binds we might make for ourselves as we address them.  As with most developmental work, what needs to shift is how we see things.

Back in June 2020, a colleague reflected on the dilemmas that were being faced then.  She wrote: “…as lockdown restrictions ease and life starts to rebuild, you only have to turn to social media to witness the emotion and angst… should we allow employees to work from home or should we encourage them back into the office?  Should we send our children to school or keep them at home?  Should we look with optimism to the future or accept the reality that is facing us and hunker down…?”

You will have your own reflections on how these panned out, or didn’t, and how similar or different your position is today.  But it remains the case that many of the challenges that get framed as polarities – as being opposing either/or choices – are, in fact, not problems that are solvable in that way, but are complex issues to be navigated.  Believing them to be either/or choices further inhabits our abilities to think and act with some level of clarity because we will be subjecting ourselves to the stress of failing to solve something we have incorrectly decided just needs a choice to be made.

That level of thinking has some characteristics you may recognise.  If somebody is arguing against our favoured option of the either/or, what we see are the downsides of their position, and wonder why they don’t see them. Meanwhile, they are busy returning that favour. Of course, we are both probably equally correct and this game of ping-pong can become exhausting, frustrating and, given the amount of energy expended, paradoxically inactive.

Finding a new path forward

Other tensions that you might recognise for your leadership include a drive for innovation and new opportunities, while managing multiple risks, being quickly decisive while looking to a further timeline, and building an effective corporate culture while enabling new hires to work from home.

At MDV we have been grateful for the time we spent with Brian Emerson, exploring his and Kelly Lewis’ work on navigating polarities.  This elegant work addressing perceived dilemmas with opposing options helps us appreciate what we are not seeing and offers a way to step forward.  To start with, having a way to grasp that you’re in a fruitless loop, is incredibly helpful in relieving some of the tensions and therefore liberating us to face the complexity.

What are some of the clues?  Well, the first one is simply in the language we use.  Either/or, this/that and ‘versus’. If you can spot these, you can start.  The second one is what we might call emotional labour or attachment.  At one level, the problem seems as if it is one of straightforward logic and if we get the right information, that will sort it out.  But it doesn’t feel that way, it feels more personal – travel on a commuter train or not, wear a face covering or not…?  Sometimes it is easy to see why a decision is an intricate one and sometimes less so, but it’s helpful to have an approach that helps both the realisations and the navigation.

The principles behind the approach are simple.  Where you have two options that seem to be in opposition, pay attention to mapping it out in a way that enables you to find the upsides of each and collaboratively devise mitigations for perceived downsides.  And do this in such a way that you can identify and address the emotional content of this apparently cognitive approach – Emerson & Lewis term this finding the ‘Vulnerability Through Way’.

People or efficiency first for organisational survival?

A short example comes from a COO who was feeling under great pressure around issues of supply chain and finance.  He was proud of his ‘happy ship’ and finding it difficult to address efficiencies at the same time as retain wellbeing for himself and others in the circumstances he was facing.  So this is where he started his navigation, with Efficiency::Wellbeing.

On the efficiency side he spoke of the need to keep costs down and processes timely, among other things.  It’s easy to appreciate that wanting to act responsibly towards the organisation would be seen as appropriate leadership. But overplay that and the leadership message could seem cold and, given the starting point, both confusing and demoralising, perhaps with some sense of a broken psychological contract – which is known to link with poor retention.
In mapping things further, the interdependencies are clear, in that some of the upsides of the

Wellbeing position act as antidotes to the downsides of Efficiency.  So, for example, there are morale and motivational benefits of attending to wellbeing, with lowered likelihood of absence, and in this case an intact psychological contract, retaining good people.

Through further exploration the COO recognised how invested he was in the happy ship, to the extent that he was in fact carrying an unhelpful burden of responsibility that even the team and wider organisation would think unreasonable.  Seeking a suitable phrase or metaphor, as advocated by Emerson, he found the concept of a flotilla more helpful and worked with that idea to consider timeliness, route maps and communications to keep each boat and crew on the voyage.

Navigating your own polarities

If you would like to play with this concept yourself, you can find more information on our ‘Introducing fluid thinking’ video.  This introduces the idea of polarities, and looks further at how to mitigate the overuse of one option over another.  The video is one of a series of digital development assets helping to enhance individuals’ capacities to navigate complexity.  The full series can be viewed at

And when you would like company for your enquiry, or would simply like to find out more about how you can navigate polarities in leadership and in your organisation, please do get in touch.

For more information please contact:
Mike Vessey