Escaping the tyranny of either/or

A decade ago, there was a growing trend of strategic alliances with competitors as well as virtual teams getting assembled across division lines. This inspired several writers to envision an end to business competition and the emergence of cooperation as a the new norm. Likewise, there was considerable idealism floating around about learning organizations, bottom up innovations and six sigma quality standards achieved by teamwork rather than quality controls.

At the time, Collins and Poras advised us to escape the tyranny of either/or in their book: Built to Last. Long term success eludes those enterprises that regard opposites as mutually exclusive. That premise came back to mind as just I finished reading Chris Anderson's new book: Free - The Future of a Radical Price. He explores how enterprises can make lots of money by charging nothing for a significant portion of their business. The book shows us the way to realize a paradoxical comprehension of pricing strategies. It's a wonderful sequel to his previous book: The Long Tail which dismantled our either/or thinking about blockbuster hits, best sellers and big moneymakers.

There are several more paradoxes that I expect will contribute to the resilience and sustainability of enterprises in the next economy:
  • Cooperating at a global scale in mutually beneficial arrangements while competing internally and against one's own metrics to excel at individual contributions to the global economy
  • Disrupting incumbents with innovative value propositions for over/under-served customers while sustaining the disruptive entrant by serving its staff as internal customers
  • Delivering goods and services reliably and consistently while discovering how the customers are actually using the stuff or finding it too difficult to use in their contexts
  • Paying employees as replaceable functionaries hired to protect the brand while engaging employees as talented individual brands worthy of respect, admiration and unique utilization

As I've explored in the posts tagged as Use your brain, our minds cannot handle paradoxes when we're afraid, being logical or reacting to evidence. In those instances, we're certain "it cannot be both" and "there are no two ways about it". We are compelled to devote ourselves to one side at the expense of the other. We idealize half and demonize the opposite. We unconsciously flip/flop from one extreme to the other.

To embrace any paradoxical comprehension, we need to be feeling safe and clear of fear. We need to challenge our logical conclusions by posing what-if questions and applying metaphors to the obvious labels. We need to disrupt out automatic reacting to evidence by first choosing: what things mean, which way to frame them and what they are showing us. When we prepare ourselves in these ways, then "it can be both" and "there are two ways about it".


  1. Kia ora e Tom!

    Procrastinating can tire the brain. I believe that a consequence of this is that we develop facile routes to making a decision when faced with an either-or situation, or what may be perceived to be one.

    Trust can be bound likewise in procrastination, and so we can also tend to develop quick snap-decision ways of making our mind up about whether to trust or not when pressed. A current discussion topic is the trust we might have in technology, where clearly there are often two ways about it.

    This is where multiple conceptualisation, as found in some of present-day Science, can assist. Physicists, among others, are aware of the duplicitous nature of some phenomena, such as light where paradoxical properties suggest that it is as if the phenomenon has several personalities. Embracing the idea that such a phenomenon can be regarded as fulfilling the requirements of at least two explanations or models helps to some thinkers to have duplicitous perception of the phenomenon and so can rise above the need to make an exclusive decision as to which model is the right one. It comes down to a less pressing decision eased by selecting the best that fits at the time, while accepting that the result of this prioritisation may be reviewed at a later date when new evidence is found.

    Peace in harmony!

  2. Kia ora Ken!
    This helps me. I had not considered how paradoxes can be anxiety producing and relying on dichotomies can provide "stress relief". The cognitive strategy you describe getting used by physicists also shows us way to sidestep the logical impossibility of any paradox. Thanks!

    Waving at your particles :-)

  3. Tēnā koe e Tom!

    Of course, for this idea of multiple concetualisation to be universally useful, dichotomies shouldn't necessarily be considered when looking for a definitive solution, for they tend to be both mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. The fact is, the phenomena I refer to appear to be quite comfortable occupying multiple roles simultaneously. That's to say, they don't actively switch from one personality to another but often appear as a blend of all their personalities.

    What this does for the scientists who grapple with the concepts in attempting to explain using models is that their models evolve where each improvement (if that's an appropriate description) moves more and more to match that blended existence.

    Chemists have employed this when considering the nature of bonding in compounds that exhibit what they sometimes refer to as delocalization when referring to a type of chemical bonding found in certain types of substances.

    Such a substance is benzene, which has a composition that baffled the early chemists when trying to figure how the atoms making the molecules were joined together.

    One way was to draw two dichotomous structures, neither of which explained satisfactorily the properties that were observed, but to consider that the molecule flipped from one structure to the other dichotomously. This was known as a resonance, or resonance hybrid.

    When delocalization was hit upon, by using a different way of looking at things, a superior model was arrived at which, though not exactly a blend of the dichotomous pair, was nevertheless a clever blend of the two.

    There now. That's a bit of Chemistry for you to chew on.

    Ngā mihi nui
    Best wishes

  4. Your example from chemistry is very new to me. Yet the pattern in it is familiar. A parallel example from negotiating goes like this. When both sides figure they cannot both win, they are looking at the one solution they both want for themselves that takes it away from the other. Yet when an abstraction is added to their contention, it's possible for both to get what they want. For instance two members of a family want the car right now without giving a ride to the other. However one wants to pick up a food item to make a casserole, and the other is dropping by a friends house. When the reasons for the using the car are included, the one visiting the friend can pick up the ingredient on the way home and save the other the bother of running an errand.

    Hei konā

  5. Tom & ye of Middle Earth - a quote for you:

    " Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.) "

    Song of Myself

    By Walt Whitman

    I do employ this quote quite often. If giving it a verbal outing I am usually somewhat declamatory when delivering the last 3 words.

    haz a rezonance/harmonic that appeals

    Ngā mihi nui

  6. I might add that we make it obvious to others that we contain multitudes whenever we:

    - speak with integrity about our lack of integrity
    - reference our pomposity without acting pompously
    - question our insincerity with noticeable sincerity
    - exclaim our declamatory tone

    paradoxically yours :-)

  7. Tēnā koutou katoa!

    Kia ora e Tom. Kia ora e Minh!

    It's only by writing about what I think that I can fully understand my own point of view. It doesn't mean to say that I agree with it once written. But I always take away a new perspective having written it.

    Catchya later

  8. Ngā mihi nui Ken
    That makes two of us. I trust my process of writing to get clear far more than the other way around of getting clear before I write. But it's a both/and thing where my writing is not usually garbled, rather it's partially clear and showing me the way to gain more clarity.

    Happy trails!