We tend to think in twos. Whether at a proverbial fork in the road or a choice between university majors, we are hard-wired to view life and the world in dualistic terms. DesCartes thought of us as body and soul, and that persists to this day.
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Even going way back to the Persians they believed in a two-part contrast between Devas and Vedas –the light and the dark. No matter where you look, you find pairs that demarcate the world, our experience and even our morality. Sun and Moon. Good and Evil. Not to mention “man and woman” or alive and dead.
It’s fundamental to our technology too. The very nature of computer code relies on a binary code of 0s and 1s.
Our prehistoric cognitive roots are also binary: When faced with a saber-toothed tiger, we must make a split-second decision. Fight or Flee. Binary thinking imbues our “System One” brain. It is unavoidable if you are a human being.
However, we operate as though those distinctions – right and left, work and play, love and hate — are real; that they exist outside of our human constructs. But, overall, they don’t. Yet, we live with them and all our other binary dilemmas, rarely noticing them.
Binary Is Boring
So what? The problem is that we get stuck with just two choices. Neither may be great. It’s as though we were all taking a standardized test moment by moment, and rather than having multiple choices as options we’re presented only two choices, (a), and (b). When those two choices are something like “take the offer or don’t take the offer”, and neither choice quite produces the outcome that we want, decision-making becomes either arbitrary or burdensome.
When people study ethics, they manufacture hypothetical choices to illustrate ethical problems. They mostly seem like massive and painful conundrums. I’ve taken some creative license here with the classic dilemma, but it is something like this. You (the decision-maker) have control of a train that is cruising at high speed. But someone has placed a cradle on the tracks. The cradle contains two sleeping infants. The train is full, and you have the power to divert the train off the tracks and into the river –ensuring a certain death for the occupants, and thereby saving the two infants. Or you could do nothing, allowing the train to continue straight ahead and kill the babies. The choice is horrible. It forces us to think of fellow humans as numbers on a data sheet. Is it more ethical to kill fewer people so as to save only two infants?
Of course, we can add more complexity. What if one of those infants is destined to find the cure for cancer (or coronavirus)? Does that change the calculus? Either way, there are only two choices available.
Those are not the scenarios that usually confront us in life. But even with lower stakes, two options in which neither is optimal sucks.
When we look at our strategic decisions, they often look binary too. Should we expand the product line or not? Should I fire that employee or not? Do I invest in hiring a Marketing Director? But choosing between yes, and no, continue or stop is a limiting factor on good decision making.
There are better ways to address these decisions, and they start with framing them as questions that look to the root question (or in many cases, the root problem).
For example, the question of whether or not to hiring a marketing person is the wrong question. We need to look at what objective that the question seeks to answer. It might be “How do we increase our lead flow? Or “How do we fill our sales pipeline?” Or How do we increase our brand awareness?”
When framed this way it’s easier to see the potential options in the answers. But, since we are hard-wired to see things in binary terms, we automatically frame the answer as a yes or no quandary. Yes, hiring a marketing person may increase lead flow. But there may be other options to achieve that aim.
It’s time to outsource our thinking. If you can only see two options, call upon your team. Their brains may not have as many pre-determined assumptions. Present them with the problem and objective — say, the need for more leads. Then, have them individually write down as many solutions as they can. These solutions should be expansive. No vetting them for practicality or realism.
Those ideas then need to be culled. Get them all up on a white board (real or virtual), without attribution, and as a group, parse them.
Using multiple brains multiplies optionality. [Tweet This]
For sure some of the proposed solutions will be duplicative, or identical to your own, and some will be ludicrous. But there will also be, among those nutty ideas, gems. Choose from among those –or open the conversation and think together how you can solve the root issue.
This process provides a richer, more diverse set of potential solutions to any issue. We often think of ourselves as the sole source of ideas. This is normal if you are a founder or the CEO. Strategic problems belong to you. But strategic solutions should not be the sole province of one brain. You have a team because their brains differ from yours. They bring different lenses through which to view things. And often, their ignorance of the limitations that you see can pollinate new possibilities. Try it. You are sure to find relief in the explosion of novel choices; Not to mention finding yourself faced with potentially great options, rather than choosing between two mediocre possibilities.
- Be aware of your own binary bias. Pay attention every time you face what seems to be a choice between just two options.
- Seek to increase the options when you notice you only have two.
- Isolate the real goal to see if that increases the options.
- If no third options come from your own brain, use your team’s brains to invent more possibilities.
- Use good brainstorming technique by having everyone privately write down their ideas.
- Parse all of them anonymously as a team!
All of this should apply both to your work and your life. If you have used the future-based goals-setting process that I described in an earlier article, generate options to fulfill those goals too! If you design binary ways to accomplish your vision, you may end up feeling pessimistic. But, when you increase the avenues to accomplish those goals, you can get inspired and energized. Try asking yourself the question: “What would need to be true for me to accomplish that?” And then grow new ways to produce those conditions.
The watchword here is: Optionality!
PS: My thanks to @MadeofMistake for use of the brilliant cartoon!