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Be Open-minded: Cultivate Both-and Thinking

I recently received a post that advised organizations to transform from profit to purpose, hierarchies to networks, controlling to empowering, planning to experimentation, and from privacy to transparency1 .

While I can support the spirit of such a transformation, it struck me that this statement was one more reinforcement of either-or thinking – an approach that sows the seeds of misunderstandings and creates unnecessary conflict, gridlock, and suboptimal action.

Either-or Thinking

Either-or thinking sees things in black and white terms. It sets up a zero-sum game in which there has to be a winner and a loser. It leaves no room for shades of gray. As project managers, business analysts and others who are responsible for implementing change in complex organizations we need to come to grips with the reality that there are few, if any, blacks and whites. There are shades of gray, changing from situation to situation.

The analytical mind is comfortable with either-or thinking. The analytical mind compartmentalizes, putting things in neat, discrete categories. This can be very useful. It enables clarity and understanding.

However, it is also dangerous. It leads to models that look and sound great but do not reflect reality. The analytical mind, the left brain, tells half the story. The right brain is where the nuances are processed. The right balance between analysis and the recognition that the real world is filled with paradox, unclear boundaries and uncertainty is necessary.

Either-or statements cause misunderstandings. Take, for example, the effect on a profit-oriented executive of saying you want to transition from profits to purpose. The executive’s success is based on bringing in profits. You immediately lose that guy’s support when you give the impression that you want to replace profit as a motive. How much more will you win him over if you said that you wanted to enhance the ability to make profits by focusing on purpose?

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You lose the finance, project management and QA people as soon as you say you are going to swap controlling for empowerment. You lose the program manager and PMO leader when you say you want to replace planning with experimentation. You turn off the security officer when you recommend an end to privacy.

Let’s give the authors the benefit of the doubt and assume that they did not mean to replace the from’s with the to’s. They just didn’t go to the trouble to explain that what they really meant was to transition from blindly pursuing profits to recognizing that profit comes about when a purpose is fulfilled and that planning can coexist with the experimentation that is needed to come up with the best design and which is curtailed by the kind of controlling that disempowers people. You want profit and purpose; control and empowerment.

Either-or thinking is a bad habit. It oversimplifies things. It removes the most interesting aspect of decision making – finding the right balance among the various options to come up with win-win resolutions, right balance and hybrid solutions that are far better than the alternatives.

Both-and Thinking

Both-and thinking is the alternative to either-or thinking. The authors of the Agile Manifesto expressed their understanding of this by saying “we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”2

Note the difference. The fathers of agile development weren’t saying to replace documentation or contracts; they were saying to proceed wisely – where wisely means in a way that is most likely to satisfy the needs of the situation at hand. They recognized that there was a need for processes and tools but without healthy interactions among individuals the best processes and tools would be ineffective.

Why Does Either-or Thinking Persist?

Both-and thinking is open-minded. It promotes healthy conflict and problem solving rather than tugs of war or arm wrestling.

It is clear to those who know how to get things done that a situation appropriate approach is necessary. In a project, there may be a time and place for experimentation. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan. In fact, even experimentation requires planning. There is a place for the right kind of documentation. You don’t replace contract negotiation with collaboration; you need both in the right measures. In fact, a well-developed contract, created through collaboration, enhances the collaborative effort required to get the job done.

If that is so clear, then why are we so frequently faced with inflexible either-or thinking? We see it in politics, religion and in business. It is a great source of conflict and suboptimal performance. Yet it persists.

It persists because people want simple certainty. Ambiguity tolerance is low. People want to stay within the confines of a Tweet because few have the patience to read or listen to long-winded statements.

It is much easier to make a point about the need for experimentation if you stay away from the messy reality of having to decide when to experiment and when to fix a scope and time. It is too confusing to have to explain the relationship between profit and purpose or planning and experimentation.

Both-and thinking is particularly challenging if you are dealing with “true believers” who only see things in black and white terms, or pretend they do to make a point. Some people are convinced that their beliefs are the only right beliefs, and they are too insecure to test their beliefs to see if they are really mutually exclusive to other beliefs.

What You Can Do

When faced with an either-or pronouncement you can check the facts. You can ask questions to clarify and seek to understand what the authors of an either-or statement really mean – do they blindly believe that what they are saying is the one exclusive truth and that other views are wrong or are they open to exploring how their position and the needs behind it can coexist with other positions?

You can avoid making statements that lock you into an inflexible position. You can avoid believing in simplistic explanations and solutions for complex problems. And, you can avoid dismissing points of view that are at odds with your own without first seeing how the two can be reconciled.

Often the most effective solutions emerge when the best parts of competing plans or designs are combined into a synthesized result. This synthesis requires an open-minded attitude that includes stepping back far enough to be objective rather being blinded by the desire to have one’s own position win out over the alternatives. So, step back. Question your beliefs. Take the time and effort to assess how what you say will affect others.

To promote both-and thinking, you can remember that there is a difference between your position and beliefs and the reality of the situation at hand. Remember that while there are zero-sum games in which only one position must prevail, often positions that seem to be mutually exclusive are not.

Whenever you say or imply either-or, see if you can replace it with both-and.

1 from Thought Works attributed to Tammay Vora


George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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