The medical device environment is full of polarities which often come into conflict or tension.  Take for example the tension between well-managed budgets vs. well-designed products – often a significant challenge in medical device development because of regulatory requirements, and the need for well-designed risk mitigation.  Polarities, though intrinsically linked in pairs, can be viewed in a very bi-polar manner of “one element against the other” which can result in emphasis on one side of the polarity and neglect of the other.

At the 2013 Engineers Without Borders National Conference I attended a workshop entitled “A world of both: harnessing the energy of opposites”.  This workshop discussed the concept of polarity thinking, which includes managing two sides of a tension and leveraging the benefits of each.  In his Polarity Thinking in Medical Device Development the facilitator Russ Gaskin shared a clever analogy using the example of a rip current.  Russ explained that though we are taught to swim out to the sides of a rip current when in danger (which in this analogy would be to choose one side of the polarity), that we can harness the benefit of the rip current by using it like a conveyor belt, riding the current out to sea and surfing the waves back to shore.

This is the ultimate goal of polarity thinking: to harness the benefits of each side of the polarity, and to thrive in an environment where both are encouraged.  Now how does this relate to medical devices?  Think about the tension between getting a device to market quickly vs. thorough design process.  It is fairly evident that a balance of both are required and that a healthy coexistence of the polarity will result in the greatest success. Only through exposing this polarity and thoroughly investigating it though can we really identify how to balance it.  This is where the polarity map comes in.

Polarity maps outline the advantages and disadvantages of each side of the polarity, and help to outline a method of harnessing the benefits of both sides of the polarity without compromising one or the other.  One of the key elements of creating a polarity map is to outline what the action steps are to encourage and help this polarity thrive.  Another key element is to identify the early warning signs of downplaying one side of the polarity while focusing on and praising the other side.  These elements of the mapping exercise help you break negative cycles of biased thinking towards the polarity, and help you move towards your “Greater Purpose” statement.  As an example of a fully fleshed out polarity,  view a polarity map I created on Collaboration vs. Competition.

Polarity management is often confused with problem solving.  Employees may feel that their side of the polarity should be emphasized, and the problem to solve is convincing others to view things from the same angle as them.  The beauty of polarity thinking however is that it honors different ways  of approaching a situation, and helps resolve issues and tensions in a non-confrontational manner.  Drawing out a polarity map allows for reflection and then action, and is a tool used in design reviews, negotiations, performance evaluation, design team alignment, and strategy development.

I have found it extremely valuable to start identifying polarities in my working life as it opens up a new way of looking at something and an opportunity for balance and harmony within my priorities.  Polarity mapping is a valuable element of medical device development and can lead to a work environment that thrives on:

  • efficiency AND quality
  • change AND stability
  • debate AND unity
  • progress AND reflection

Annelies Tjebbes is a StarFish Medical Biomedical Electrical Engineer.  She uses the power of Polarity Mapping in Comprehensive Design Engineering for medical device development.


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