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Balancing and Harmonizing Principles

Published on August 14, 2012 by in Principles

Any principle — no matter how good, how true
or how just — if taken to an extreme,
lead to disaster.

It’s easy to see this in the political realm.  The democratic principle that each individual should have a high degree of autonomy, if taken to the extreme, can lead to anarchy.  The principle of first voice, that communities should be able to define and protect their own identity, if taken to the extreme, can lead to fascism.  Each principle is important to honor, but not to the exclusion of other, equally important principles.

Similarly, in the current commercial environment, every business needs to be highly innovative and adaptive to changing market conditions.  It’s an important business principle.  But if taken to the extreme, a company can drown in R&D costs and will never establish a clear brand in the marketplace.  Giving people what they want to buy requires a certain degree of continuity over time and in terms of product portfolio, business processes and the like.  Yet taken to the extreme, this principle can lead obsolete products and less productive processes.

Even the best principle needs one or more balancing principles to keep its potential excesses in check.

So, first, balancing principles isn’t like piling up equal amounts on both sides of a scale.   To balance a widely admired principle, you need another, equally widely admired principle; but one or more that pull in an opposing direction. Like a cyclist balancing friction and momentum when leaning into a tight corner, autonomy without cooperation, or vice versa, falls short of what they can produce together.  The same with innovation and continuity.  One without the other is always less than both together.

Also, I’ve found that reminding myself to consider what important principles balance the principle on which I’m currently focusing helps me avoid overly focusing on my own pet concerns.

Second, there is never a single balance point when it comes to principles.  Human judgment always comes into play.  Different people can choose different balance points while adequately honoring multiple principles.  There is always more than one right answer.  The wide range of “democratic” systems of government in the world is testament to this, as is the great variety of successful management styles.  Diversity is a natural outcome of balancing principles.

Third, this means we shouldn’t just talk about principles, but we need to consider sets of principles.  No principle successfully stands alone.  It needs compatriots.  Generally, when it comes to principles, more is merrier, with each balancing, informing and helping to interpret the others.  There’s a limit to how many people can easily hold in their minds, of course.  So there is value in developing an easily understandable set that provides a diverse range of balancing elements.

“Harmonizing” is my way of talking about the task of balancing a set of principles well for a given task or community. As noted, there are multiple right answers to balancing principles (and multiple “right” sets of principles!), so I’m not suggesting that’s the case here with harmonizing principles.  But there are ways to balance autonomy and community in which one is traded off against the other, and other ways to balance them where both are honored fully.

Just as balance is a matter of physics and harmony is a matter of music, balancing principles can be approached somewhat analytically while harmonizing principles is more a search for elegance and beauty.

When constructing and honoring a set of principles, there is always a place for art and science, individual judgment and common understanding, practicality and ideals.  Just like all worthwhile human endeavors…

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