Interdependent Pairs

Interdependent Pairs is a model and method that allows individuals and groups to explore the paradoxes that emerge from the complexity in their systems. In a complex system, there is very little that is all or nothing. The challenges that have you stuck are the ones where there is no clear one-way consideration. The stickiness of your issues comes because you move on shifting landscapes between the extreme positions on the questions you face.


In our experience, unstable or unpredictable situations emerge from a framework of Interdependent Pairs. Examples include centralization or decentralization, long-term or short- term decisions, collaboration or independent work, optimizing the whole or the part. Barry Johnson, in his Handbook of Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, describes these pairs as polarities.

In a complex system, multiple polarities are at play at the same time, and they interact to make things even more complicated. Rarely do you operate at either extreme end of any pair. In less complex times, you could use phrases like either/or to describe a challenge or a decision. Then there was a recognition of the interdependent nature of some of these extremes in these polarities, and the movement was toward using both/and language. In highly complex systems, however, the more realistic picture is that the final critical factor actually lies along a continuum between the two extremes. The next wise action for anyone is dependent upon the unique factors present in a given situation.

Additionally, in complex systems, another sources of uncertainty lies in the fact that multiple polarities exist and are interdependent with each other. A movement along one pair to resolve one challenge can lead to radical transformation along another pair and create new, unintended challenges.

So What?

Leaders can use this model and method to explore the Interdependent Pairs that contribute to their own sticky issues. By looking at the dynamics of the patterns that shape their greatest challenges, leaders can identify the factors that are at play and the degree to which they influence each other. Issues like speed and quality make up one interdependent pair that any manufacturing leader has to consider. In todays competitive market, you cannot always afford to sacrifice quality for volume, but the tension always arises. Neither can you afford to take too much time creating the highest quality products. And its impossible to have both! An item can be mass produced or it can be highly crafted over time. Its impossible for one item to have both. Another pair that challenges manufacturers is the idea of whether an item is intended for a single use or for longer lasting service. In issues of sustainability, this Pair becomes crucial.

So as a decision maker, you have to make a judgment about what is most fit for function at any given point in time. Mass produced, simple products that are for single use may not require the same level of quality that is required in an item that is intended to last a lifetime.

This is a pretty classic example of Interdependent Pairs, and its relatively simple to consider. The challenge for you, as a leader, is to look more deeply into your systems sticky issues to identify the Interdependent Pairs that shape your challenges. Then, to use that understanding to inform your strategies and tactics.

Now What?

So when you feel stuck in your next challenge you cannot see your next step, use Interdependent Pairs as a model to help you see where you are stuck and as a method to help you identify your next step.

  • What are the sticking points that seem intractable? Where is the tension in the system preventing movement? Which of those points seem to be in direct competition or contradiction to each other? Where and how are those points interdependent with each other and with other points of tension you see?
  • So what can you do to find the balance between the Interdependent Pairs you see? What wise action will let you leverage the points to your greatest advantage?
    • Now what action can you take to resolve the tension and move forward?

Related Resources

March 3, 2016 Glenda Eoyang explores leadership in complex systems: What? is the responsibility of a leader in a complex and uncertain environment? So what? practices support leaders’ Adaptive Action? Now what? can you do to lead more effectively and support others, too?
Leadership ain’t what it used to be. The image of a great white man at the top of the pyramid is, we can only hope, gone forever. The question now is “What will take the place of that image?”
Understanding a complex system is never enough. The reason you want to understand is to find your next wise action. Explore your options with Glenda Eoyang.
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