Binary Thinking. What is Right? (Part 3)

This is Part 3 in a series on “What is Right?” (How to decide when the choice isn’t obvious). Part 1 (here) identified seven filters (tools) that can help you choose right. Part 2 (here) outlined a simple three-step thought process for applying those tools. This post describes a subtle, but potentially dangerous trap into which we often inadvertently fall. I call it the “Binary Decision Trap.”

In short, the Binary Decision Trap frames questions around issues with only two possible answers – yes/no, start/stop, go/stay, etc. Without denying the presence in life of authoritative questions involving right and wrong, we too often allow binary thinking to constrain our alternatives and thereby eliminate a vast array of potential outcomes which might enrich our lives. I want to quickly explore three perspectives around binary thinking. Why do we submit to, or even prefer, binary thinking? The consequences of binary thinking? And, how to avoid binary thinking?

Why we fall into binary thinking?

It’s simple. Binary thinking enables us to address the increasing complexity of our world. We quickly narrow our thinking to one alternative and frame it as a go/no-go, good/bad, us/them choice.

It’s easy. Admittedly, some decisions are substantially less consequential and deserve an easy decision process. However, we must guard against lazy thinking that allows decisions of import to drift into binary thinking mode.

Competitive mindset. The competitive nature of American culture cultivates a mindset that frames the world in binary terms—winners and losers. We especially see this happening in the political arena where players from all political persuasions leverage and twist every action and statement for advantage—whether to lift its own party or tear down others. When our minds and emotions get bombarded daily with win/lose dialogue it seeps unaware into every aspect of our lives.

Scarcity mentality. People with a scarcity mentality automatically default to “either/or” thinking. Their fixed-pie worldview condenses every issue into haves and have-nots; givers and takers; and winners and losers.

Consequences of Binary Thinking

Law of Unintended Consequences. We get surprised. Striving for simplicity causes us to devalue or neglect context. We naively consider inconsequential and ignore whatever caused the current situation. We also fail to speculate about the impact our choice may have on the future.

Polarization occurs. Binary thinking divides us. Advocates for either side of a binary decision quickly fracture into separate camps and harden their positions. Rather than facing off against the issue advocates face off against each other.

Extremes get amplified. Oversimplification and polarization make it easy to believe that more is better (or worse).

Arguing replaces dialogue. Binary choices drive stakeholders to choose a side too early in the thought process. Once we’ve chosen a side, we feel compelled to defend that choice. The dialogue which naturally accompanies a spirit of open inquiry gets supplanted by the argumentation which flows from a mind closed to other alternatives.

Winning replaces learning. Binary thinking encourages a win-lose mentality. Our thought process narrows to alternately selling or defending our position. Our energy gets consumed in advocacy and leaves no mental capacity for learning.

Identity crises. In extreme cases, we even let our identity get allied with our choice. At that point, our ego enters the equation, and we lose perspective. Rather than a dispassionate search for the best solution, we engage our intellect and emotion in self-defense. As an aside, this reminds me of one of the best pieces of business advice I ever received; namely, “Never get so closely identified with your position (on an issue) that when it goes down, you go down with it.”

Avoiding Binary Thinking

What practical steps can we take to avoid binary thinking?

  1. First, and most importantly, actively seek the best alternative; frame the issue as “ What is the best/wise thing to do?” Consider a variety of alternatives and mentally condition yourself to avoid staking out a position too early when faced with an important decision.
  2. Take time to consider context. How did I/we get in this situation? How have my own choices influenced the present? How have external factors contributed to present circumstances? What is driving current behaviors—My own and others? What’s changing around me that could make the future different from the past?
  3. Consider consequences. Invest time in contemplating what-if scenarios. I will discuss in a future post the fourfold test I use.
  4. Consider all the stakeholders. Who is affected by this decision? Ideally seek their input and perspective, but at a minimum reflect on how the various alternatives will impact them.
  5. Actively seek different points of view. There is wisdom in many counselors. Look beyond the circle of stakeholders. Listen and learn from those who have walked the path before you. Seek input from subject matter experts. Sound out the wise people in your life.

A shout out to Eric Jackson whose May 2004 column in LocalTechWire.com introduced me to the concept of binary thinking.

Don’t Spin Your Tires

My project is stuck. My team is under performing. We are falling behind the competition. We are missing our earnings projection. Why? What is the problem? Where do I start?

There are five discovery factors an effective leader must assess before launching any countermeasures to get a project/team/business back on track.

Before I proceed, please understand that I strongly support using one of the powerful problem-solving methodologies developed and rigorously field-tested over the past several decades; including the Lean Plan-Do-Check-Act or the Six Sigma Design-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control. Those methods define a series of effective process steps for continuous improvement. However, they do not tell you where to start. While the discovery nature of those methodologies and related tool sets would eventually discover the root cause of your team’s poor performance, the urgency of the business situation typically allows for few, if any, false starts.

Even the best processes perform more efficiently (i.e., quickly uncover the root cause) when we seed or start the process by first assessing the most likely problem areas. If you discover oil in your car’s radiator (as we did recently in our household), it is a waste of time investigating the car’s electrical system. Instead, you will focus attention on the automobile fluids and look for sources of cross-contamination.

Where do I start when my project/team/business is under performing? Two fundamental principles undergird the elements and sequence of the five discovery factors I have developed and used over the years; one, people want to do a good job; and two, the selection of your team heavily influences the fate of your team/organization/business.

So, what are those five elements? Where should we begin an evaluation to identify the root cause of under performance?

  1. Talent. Do we have the right players on the team? Even the most well-intentioned person will fail in certain circumstances. I watched the movie “Lone Survivor” with my son last night and was again struck by the realization that there is no way I could become a Navy Seal. Their combination of mental and physical determination makes them a breed apart.
  2. Target. This is a combination of strategy and priorities. In short, are we working on the right stuff? If a particular baseball game requires the team to play “small ball,” but my batters are all trying to hit a home run, that’s a problem. If I am spending my team’s resources on improving the distribution system when we have a problem of product quality, we are focusing on the wrong target. The more typical problem is that everything is a priority, which means nothing is a priority.
  3. Tactics. Evaluate our processes. Do individuals or teams use their own work methods? Are performance standards widely deployed and rigorously tracked? Do we have documented processes for performing repetitive functions, including how to solve problems? Do we have documented processes that we frequently ignore?
  4. Training. Do we explicitly know the skills (as distinct from talents) necessary for high-performance in a particular project or organization? Do we know how team members’ skills align with those success factors? Have we provided appropriate training to fill in the gaps or cross-training to build sufficient depth and enhance flexibility.
  5. Time. Is the team investing enough time? More bluntly, are they working hard enough? This factor is intentionally last, because the answer to a business problem is rarely work harder. However, there are circumstances where solution requires working faster and longer. So, don’t ignore it.

The next time you find your team stuck, pull out this list and use it to start your own assessment of why the team is spinning its tires.

 

 

The Unequal Nature of Egalitarian Time

The world isn’t fair. Personal, corporate, community and national assets are not distributed equally. Intelligence, wealth, and power may vary greatly from individual to individual. Yet, the life distance we measure as a day travels equally for every person on earth. This same window of time is available to all; regardless of individual intelligence, wealth, health or power. However, in retrospect we can see that some periods during our life or business were dramatically more impactful than others. While the seconds, minutes, hours and days marched on at a rigid pace, not all days presented the same opportunity window.

A former business leader of mine once said that for a stable business with modest growth a year is a year. However, a business experiencing fast growth must treat every quarter as a year and every week as a month; and a business experiencing hypergrowth must respect every month as a year and every week as a quarter. In other words, time is egalitarian (i.e. there are 24 hours in every day for everyone), but time is not equal for all people in all situations.

If it takes a calendar month to develop an “annual” business plan and you are a hypergrowth business, you spent a whole “year” planning and no time executing. If it takes three weeks to close the books and issue financial reports, the “year” in a hypergrowth business is 75% complete before the business know how well it’s doing.

It does not take much thought to identify rate of change as the distinguishing factor between stability and hypergrowth. Time speeds up when my life/business experiences a high rate of change. If I do not recognize times of rapid change and correspondingly adjust the pace at which I plan, decide and act, then I risk falling behind or missing a window of opportunity.

But be careful! In order to appropriately adapt we must recognize that our minds can warp our perspective of time. Consider how often you have heard someone remark how quickly the year has flown. Contrast that with your memories of the interminable wait for Christmas Day as a child. And, if you stop and think for a few moments, you can also recall periods of time as an adult when time seemed to stand still. Don’t ask me how that happens. The best analogy that comes to mind is the difference between high-speed and time-lapsed photography. A high-speed camera takes many frames per second, but when replayed at normal speed gives the appearance of slow-motion. On the other hand, time-lapsed photography compresses time and allows us to actually observe slow rates of change that are undetectable at normal speed.

I can only speculate that our minds possess remarkable potential to adapt to high rates of change. However, extended periods of stability can also slow our minds. This is why bright people with long experience in large corporations may struggle or even fail in a fast-paced entrepreneurial environment.

Bottom line…you must learn to recognize the signs of the time and adjust your behaviors accordingly or risk getting either left behind or overrun. As the iconic American humorist, Will Rogers once said, “You may be on the right track, but if you are just sitting there, you will get run over.”

Putting it into practice. How can I leverage the relativity of time?

  • Take time to reflect and train my mind to recognize the present pace of time in my life and business
  • Adapt my rhythms of planning, decisions and actions to suit the times
  • Take advantage of slower times to crystallize and capture lessons from past failures and successes; so that I am prepared to readily apply them to future problems and opportunities
  • Commit to a lifetime of learning. Leverage times of stability to learn new skills and explore new arenas.

Rhythms & Sabbaticals

Why haven’t you taken a sabbatical? I know. I know. You only wish you could take a multi-month break and return to find your job awaiting you. However, you not only should but can take a sabbatical (it’s not what you think). Read on…

A new friend, Gary Christopher of The Jholdas Group, recently recounted his plans for a sabbatical from his consulting practice that will include a bicycle ride across the continental United States with two friends. He’s blogging about that trip here. An undertaking of that magnitude requires no small amount of planning, and the consultant in Christopher clearly researched and planned his trip thoroughly.

Christopher noted that an effective sabbatical has four distinct phases:

  1. Releasing of present responsibilities for the duration of the sabbatical
  2. Resting from our regular labors; An arduous transcontinental bike ride hardly sounds like rest, but this respite from his profession is more about intellectual and emotional rest
  3. Reflection on the past, present and future
  4. Recalibration, or taking an inventory of one’s own life before returning to our daily routines and related responsibilities

Very few of us will ever take a multi-month sabbatical before retirement. However, it struck me that those same sabbatical phases can and probably should conjoin other rhythms in our lives. For example, every day we should release the day just concluded (we cannot change the past), reflect and learn from what transpired that day, rest to recharge for the coming day and recalibrate to establish a plan and priorities for tomorrow.

Depending on the speed or scope of our present lifestyles and obligations, we each should also apply these four sabbatical disciplines to some of the longer frequency rhythms of our lives; namely, weekly, monthly, quarterly or annually. God designed rhythms into nature, and we ignore them at our own peril.

If we desire to leave a powerful legacy, the process of these mini-sabbaticals will arrest aimless wandering and give our lives greater purpose and productivity.