Over the course of your career, or even during the course of last week, how many times did you or one of your colleagues boil down a decision to an ‘either-or’ equation?
As Roger Martin points out in his insightful book – the Opposable Mind – humans, and particularly business-folk love to simplify problems.
Managers encourage sub-ordinates to give them a ‘thirty-second, thirty-thousand update’ on a problem, and executives ask for issues to be whittled down to one slide with a nice graphic.
In of itself, simplification can be a ‘good’ thing – information overload and too much unstructured complexity can kill decision making and cripple organisational processes – simplicity helps keep things running and encourages quick ‘understanding’.
But there’s also ‘bad’ simplicity which results in poor decision making and a wholesale failure to consider the problem in the round – delivering the wrong, or a less effective outcome.
So how do you know whether you’re using ‘good’ simplicity, or ‘bad’ simplicity?
Good simplicity, bad simplicity
Aligning with Martin, I’d suggest that a good indicator of the ‘bad’ type of simplicity is when its result in a zero-sum decision point for a leader – the type of trade-off where neither option really gives you what you want or achieves you objective.
The problem however, is that our organisations and societies are structured in a way which promotes ‘this or that’ thinking.
And what’s worse – the more people that believe the decision point is ‘this or that’, the more compelling the ‘this or that’ rhetoric becomes – which can quickly become the accepted truth in today’s ‘soundbite’ based cultures.
Without recognising the warning signs of simplified decision making, many leaders can be ‘forced’ into a zero-sum trade-off – which inhibit their ability to achieve their goals.
Defying corporate simplicity
One executive I worked with had a decision to make regarding the technology transformation programme she was sponsoring.
As a result of the way they had architected the solution, she would need to either fork out $1m on extra licenses, or lose functionality which key financial benefits were based on.
By the time I arrived, the matter had been discussed at length amongst her leadership team. They had consulted with industry experts and various consultants, and she had been presented with the two options: the leadership team, and her CEO demanded an answer.
She weighed up the two options, one would require her to go back to the Board and ask for another $1m to spend – a massive business expense, but also likely to significantly dent her reputation and perceived project management skills.
The alternative seemed equally painful, whereby the business would lose out on much needed functionality and the programme would not deliver the financial savings the Board had signed off on.
She refused to accept the zero-sum decision point she had been given and began to seek more information, introducing complexity back into the equation and consider the problem in the round.
Her conclusion was to buy one license (instead of the 10,000+ that was driving the $1m cost), hire a graduate, and implement a manual process which achieved the same outcome as the technology solution.
She got the ‘best of both worlds’, crafting an alternative decision founded on her willingness to seek out complexity. She didn’t have to spend $1m, didn’t have to go back to the board, and was still able to materially realise the planned business benefits.
In short – the decision point given to her was not just over-simplified, it was plain wrong.
Aside from the fact I did little other than watch this process unfold, this remains one of the best examples of integrative thinking I’ve seen.
Integrative thinking is a defining principle which all leaders need to know.
Amongst other things, it involves:
- Refusing to accept zero-sum trade offs as the only options;
- Being zealously cautious of oversimplification;
- Defying corporate rhetoric and having the confidence to reject the generally accepted logic;
- Remaining willing to work with complexity; and,
- Focusing on the problem as a whole, rather than just ‘one piece of the puzzle’.
To all that have read this far, I thoroughly recommend you take a look at Roger’s book, in addition to a structured approach to learning how be a more integrative thinker, some fascinating examples of how our commercial and political world has been shaped by leaders who refused to play by the binary either-or equation.