When the people of an organization embark on their quest for increased agility, they are essentially begin working on the opposite side of a paradox that has been ignored. Often times, though as they take their journey, they begin experiencing the downside of now ignoring the the traditional, control-based approach and there is an outcry to revert. A dilemma is created.

What are these paradoxes? Well, the first four you encounter are described in the Agile Manifesto’s values. If one could have both sides of the “over” statements easily, we’d take them. Successfully maximizing the appropriate upsides of each side of these values while minimizing the downsides becomes a swinging pendulum to manage. This becomes key to leading others in your organization. If you are a manager, team leader, or executive trying help your organization get traction, then this session will provide some new insights into how to balance change with stability.

These four values are just the start of the paradoxes that will emerge as you take your journey. This workshop will help you use a technique called Polarity Management to help manage the upsides and downsides of this balancing act so that you can lead people effectively. Once out in the open, dilemmas created with a swing one way or another become easier to handle and perhaps can even be avoided.

Information for Program Team:

This workshop is designed to provide a problem-solving/systems thinking technique to help leaders understand and manage paradoxes that may emerge within their organization. I’ll also point out not every problem they encounter is a paradoxical dilemma. You can find out some basics on Polarity Management here: https://kindling.xyz/next-systems/polarity-management-101-solution-unsolvable-problems/ or https://www.jpr.org.uk/documents/14-06-19.Barry_Johnson.Polarity_Management.pdf

My current thinking for the flow of the workshop:

[5 min] Present: Welcome and open by describing what a paradox is

  • Opposites on a spectrum with upsides & downsides to each
  • What is not a paradox – something where there is no upside to an alternative
  • Why as leaders we should care – recognizing it’s not binary, binary swings cause churn; reducing churn helps people through the changes they will be making
  • Upsides and Downsides - these plus the spectrum form the Polarity Map
  • We’ll start with the Agile Manifesto’s values as our first set of paradoxes to explore

[12 min total] Exercise: Table groups work together to identify the paradox within one of the Manifesto’s values; the Value itself will constrain the spectrum and thus the space to be examined and thus the space to be explored more openly. I have the participants exploring the upsides of the left-hand of the value statement as the usually understand why they want agility. This also makes the downsides of the right easy to understand as that is what they want to get away from... Then I have them think some of the upsides they may lose by over emphasizing the left-side. Then finally downsides that can occur with over emphasis of the left.

Here's a short, incomplete example: 
Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation; this is the spectrum. So an upside of the left - we have tested software being deployed regularly meeting business needs, one downside of the right would be taking too long to create a document and not getting a feature completed or inadequately tested. One upside of the right - having some documentation that describes the rationale of a programming or design choice made so that people know why the developer coded what he did. One downside of the left, the developer goes on vacation, the person he paired with gets hospitalized, and something that was developed 3 months ago needs to be changed due to new acceptance criteria. We end up redesigning the code, but went through all the prior choices with little insight from the prior effort.

I'm being somewhat conservative on my timing here as it may take a bit for people to get into the latter part in particular... My hope is that I actually end up with some extra time, so a longer Q&A session could occur at the end.

  • [1 min] flow of exercise and instructions
  • [2 min] Upsides of Left-hand side
  • [2 min] Downsides of Right-hand side
  • [2 min] Upsides of Right-hand side
  • [2 min] Downsides of Left-hand side
  • [2 min exercise slack time]

[8 min] Debrief ~2min/question

  • What did you learn?
  • What are some of the downsides of having the pendulum swing too far right? Examples?
  • Now how about too far left? Examples?
  • What antidotes to these downsides did we find in the opposite upsides?

[5 min] Present: Describe how organizations or groups/teams move through paradoxes from a Polarity Management viewpoint; downside problems become signals to add in some of the upsides of the opposite end of the paradox.

  • These can either be managed or unmanaged, with a preference towards managed
  • Constant learning through these movements

[8 min] Exercise: Table groups identify –

  • [ 1 min] Instructions
  • [3 min] When a downside on the right or left was experienced; what were the signal(s) that was (were) experienced.
  • [3 min] Identify actions to take based on those signals that move you to the upside proactively and smoothly.
  • [1 min exercise slack time]


[Remainder] Debrief & Closing

  • What did you learn about signals you can look for..? How can you use them?
  • What are some other paradoxes people see?
  • [1 min] Jot down to yourself one thing you will do differently based on what you learned.
  • What questions do you have

A much longer version of this session was given at Agile2019. This has been tailored to fit into a 45 minute timebox.

For a room set-up, I prefer to have rounds of 6-10 people so that they can work together.

Prerequisite Knowledge:

While no specific prerequisite knowledge is required, it is helpful if the attendees have had moments of struggle trying to get the right balance between the left and right side of the value statements of the Manifesto or in putting the principles actually in practice. This workshop is targeted at people trying to lead/help others implement these in their context.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Recognizing the paradoxes within an organization’s Agile Journey
  • Applying the Polarity Management technique to understand and manage them effectively
  • Understanding how to depict your paradox using a Polarity Map


This is a link to the slides used for Agile2019: https://www.slideshare.net/pmboos/your-agile-leadership-journey-leading-people-managing-paradoxes 

Session Track

Track 8

Experience level


Session Time Slot(s)