The Dangers of Binary Thinking

During the holiday season, my wife likes to spend much of her time cozy on the couch watching cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies. Stay with me, this is going somewhere. There’s usually a pretty straightforward formula to these films: girl in the big city has it all but is unfulfilled, leaves the city for a small town, meets people who change her perspective, girl makes radical life choices in the span of a long weekend, etc. It’s all very predictable. As we watched our third film of the weekend, one thing struck me about the formula: they always seem to put the main character in an “either/or” position. Either she stays in the city and is miserable or she absconds to rural America for a simpler life. I’m not debating the merits of either of those options. My issue is with the “either/or” thinking that leads to a suboptimal outcome.

When we’re faced with this kind of “either/or” choice, it paralyzes us into thinking that there are only two possible outcomes, but that’s not always true. It can often feel like we’re in a tug-of-war with the opposing ideas on either side. In the movie, the main character is flummoxed with the opposing ideas of staying in the city with her big corporate business job or moving to a small town and own the family bookstore. She’s torn: option A or option B? How can she choose?

We can all relate to this kind of binary view of the world at times. Whether it’s something simple like wanting to go to your favorite restaurant for the 50th time vs. trying something new, or something important like deciding where to prioritize our time or savings. We typically make a list of pros and cons and then compromise somewhere in the middle – or we’ll pick one option, but always feel a sense of “what if.” Being forced to choose between two opposite options is just too simple of a model in such a complicated world. Instead of choosing one over the other, what if we could expand our frame of reference to see even more possibilities?

Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking (Riel & Martin, 2017)

Well, with Integrative Thinking, we can! One of my favorite books is called Creating Great Choices by Jennifer Reil & Roger Martin – the same great minds of Playing to Win, one of my favorite books on strategy. One of the main ideas really stuck with me and it’s this: how might we “use the tension of opposing ideas to help create transformative new answers?” Said simply: if you find yourself in an “either/or” scenario, take a step back and create a new choice that gets you what you really want. Critically, the new choice won’t simply land in your lap, you have to be creative and find it. The great thing about this process is that you don’t need to have all the answers, you just need questions: what’s great about both options? How did I arrive at these options? What thoughts, ideas, stories, etc. did I tell myself to justify these options? What am I really trying to achieve? How might I use the best of both options to create a new choice? Etc.

Now, in the Hallmark Christmas movies, you won’t find this kind of analysis – to my wife’s great joy (she likes it as is, thank you very much). But, real life is just too short to be subject to sub-optimal choices. So, the next time you find yourself in a binary “either/or” situation – whether it’s on a project or a new opportunity – take a step back, be your own coach, and reflect so you can open more doors for yourself.

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