“Either/or” thinking is all around us, even though common sense tells us life is not black and white. For example, consider the business leader who asks the marketing team to determine if the business should invest primarily in technology or design for the next release of their product line – either technology or design!  Why not both?

Or, when the Board of a healthcare system facing its CEO’s upcoming retirement asks, “Should we recruit a physician-leader or do we need to find a strong business leader?” The two desirable features cannot appear in a single person?

Or, when a conflict arises between the heads of two departments about the loss of a key account, and the blame game begins. The inevitable emails are volleyed until an ultimatum arrives from an otherwise sensible and very valuable leader: “Either you back me up on this or you can start looking for my replacement.”

“Either/or” thinking is the decision-making equivalent of painting oneself into a corner – or, in the example of the ultimatum, being painted into a corner by others. Under high-stress conditions, people lose their ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity; they take flight into the simplicity “either/or” thinking provides, even if that refuge is short-term and ultimately costly.

So, what does a business leader do in the face of “either/or” thinking? Here are three prescriptions for those who aspire to be a “Both/And” leader.

Ask for a Third Option

When the first attempt at solving a problem comes in the form of just two options – especially if those options reflect the perspectives of opposing camps – push back and ask for additional options.

A software company was falling behind in the development of new products because they had to allocate the time of their engineers to supporting customers who were having difficulties with previous releases. The customer service people were asking for more time from the engineers while marketing and sales were asking for the next new product.  The head of engineering demanded a decision at a senior team meeting: “Either we support what is already out there, or we abandon our customers and focus on new products. It’s one or the other.” The President acknowledged everyone’s point of view but then proposed a different approach: “Look, we’re pulling on opposite ends of a rather frayed rope. We will support our customers and we will design new products, but we can’t accomplish these things going at it the same way we have in the past. We need to re-think how we support our customers and  develop new products; we can get more out of what we have.” By re-framing the problem and extracting the team from “either/or” thinking, the President initiated a process that ultimately led to gains in both customer support and new product development – without adding more people. 

Establish Criteria

Challenge your team to draw up criteria that would represent a good outcome before they start recommending actions. Then, build options that meet the criteria. Insist on considering “Both/And” options that accomplish multiple goals – both cost reduction and improved quality; both functionality and design; both increased productivity and improved safety.

In anticipation of the new health legislation, a small health care system hired two black belts trained to find options for improving quality assurance and patient safety. The management team made it clear to them that there were many opportunities to improve the system, but they wanted to focus on changes that would accomplish three things simultaneously: improve patient outcomes, reduce costs and engage the health care professionals. By setting multiple criteria to filter decisions about which opportunities warranted attention, the management team prevented wasteful debate.   

Employ an Inclusive Use of Data

Use an open, inclusive approach to gathering data. Actively invite multiple perspectives, invite both hard data and soft data, e.g. both error rates and focus groups; both survey data and expert opinion.

A large city’s Department of Public Health was struggling to find a cost-effective approach to meeting the needs of the mentally ill. There were plenty of opinions, and heated arguments bubbled up which often seemed to be built around professional turf issues. For example, some felt the patients were put on medication reflexively and without sufficient human support.  A physician overhearing that concern became angry: “What do you people want? Either we get these poor people on medication or they will be roaming the streets hallucinating. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.” The head of the Department hired a university to study the question, and they employed a very transparent approach to ensure all parties were heard, including patients. There was plenty of hard data, but also an effort to gather the perspectives of those who worked there, those who referred patients and those who chose not to refer patients. A fuller picture invited a more thoughtful approach to the complex problems the Department faced. The final report provided focus and direction by articulating how to move toward a system of care that would be both adequate to the needs of the mentally ill, especially those with chronic and severe mental illness, and sustainable.

If the villain in this story is “either/or” thinking in the face of complexity, the hero is the leader’s capacity to manage the tension that comes with high-stakes decisions and to discern what is best by weighing all the information available.

Periods of crisis bring pressure and that, in turn, can degrade the quality of organizational thinking. A common indicator of problem-solving gone wrong is the inclination to retreat into “either/or” formulations of issues that are much more complex. It is at these moments when leaders can have their greatest value as they help their organization step toward the complexity and demonstrate the importance of “Both/And” thinking.

Have you ever faced a problem with two seemingly incompatible solutions? How did you find an option that satisfied all needs? Tell us about it in the comments below!