The Tyranny of Or

Back in University, four friends and I took time for an Easter weekend road trip to Banff. We looked forward to meeting up and blowing off some steam after our respective Winter semesters were winding down. We also planned to enjoy some spring skiing for a couple of days. We met up at our hotel and headed out for a night on the town. We had enjoyed many similar excursions over the years and were prepared to adventure for a beverage at several bars. We moved from the Rose and Crown up the strip and over the course of a few hours ended up at a pub at the Banff Springs Hotel. The pub was quiet, and we realized we should have stayed back in town. As we left the pub, we looked for a cab to take us back to town. We must have been making more noise than necessary and wore out our welcome at the Springs quickly. A couple of security guards asked us to leave, and we astutely offered that was exactly what we were trying to do. Security didn’t find us as amusing as we thought we were and were quick to contact the RCMP.

A couple of RCMP cars arrived in short order with a few officers. These fine folk were no more impressed with our contributions to the conversation. Having really worn out our welcome the five of us were distributed amongst the two RCMP vehicles and driven unceremoniously to the local detachment. The five of us were given varying degrees of grief based on our respective “cooperation.” Each of the group was individually pulled aside and presented with a piece of paper and a choice. The officer told us we could either sign the paper and go home or not sign it and spend the night. The paper was, effectively, an acknowledgement or plea to being intoxicated in public and carried a fine. Most of the group happily accepted the choice, signed the paper, and prepared to head back to the hotel where we could work on embellishing our story.

However, one in the group, being a critical and independent thinker, responded with curiosity when presented with the binary option. He asked, “Isn’t there a third option, like call my lawyer or something like that?” Unfortunately, the RCMP officer was in no mood to “negotiate.” The binary option had been presented and our thoughtful friend brave or stupid enough to ask a question was awarded an all expenses paid evening at the Banff RCMP Drunk Tank.

Our fearless friend stoically served his “time,” and we picked him up in his Dad’s car the next morning. Off to the ski hill we went to enjoy the balance of our weekend. It became an experience none of us will ever forget. We were each humbled a little bit. For none of us was it a proud moment. We were lucky the consequences to our rambunctious behavior didn’t have long term implications. The young man that spent the night became a bit of a hero to us. He has since gone on to develop a burgeoning Private Equity Investment firm that does just fine. His willingness to not conform and think a bit outside the box, though sometimes earning him the ire of authority in his youth, has served him well in adulthood. I often recall this experience to remind myself of the importance of seeking additional options when faced with a “decision”.

Jim Collins offers the idea of the “Genius of the AND instead of the Tyranny of the OR” in his business classic, Built to Last. Collins challenges business leaders to work to achieve both profit and contribution. These aren’t either/or decisions. All too often, we accept the either/or choices with which we’re presented. Either this or that. Our options narrow to just the two. Binary decisions like these are easy in terms of it basically boils down to a flip of the coin. Heads or tails? Does it really matter which we choose? We pigeonhole ourselves into two options.

The either/or dilemmas are self-inflicted. When we accept these, we’re giving up power. We’re allowing others to limit our decision making. We weaken our own influence. Just entertaining “or” cues us to think that the two options are mutually exclusive. This doesn’t have to be the case. Instead, we should work to try to expand available options. Can we dare to have our cake and eat it too? What if we work to avoid the tyranny of the “or” and embrace the power of “and”? What if we converted from a decision dilemma into a more expansive view of choice?

We can work to reframe our decision whenever we identify what we think is an either/or decision. Collins writes, “Instead of being oppressed by the “Tyranny of the OR,” highly visionary companies liberate themselves with the “Genius of the AND”—the ability to embrace both extremes of a number of dimensions at the same time. Instead of choosing between A OR B, they figure out a way to have both A AND B.”

What are some typical business decisions that are presented as binary choices?

Either short term or long-term performance.

Either lower prices or lose sales.

Focus on our core service or consider a new offering.

Current customers or new customers. Retention or new business.

How would things look for our business and our customers if we are able to convert “or” to “and”?

What would things need to look like to perform well both now, in the short term, and, down the road, in the long term?

How can we maintain or increase our prices and grow our sales?

In what ways can we focus on delivering our core service and provide a new offering?

What steps should we take to improve both our retention levels and new business?

Simply reframing binary choices into expansionary ones will spur a wider range of options to consider. Using and instead of or will create conversation instead of stalling it.

In short, trade the tyranny of the “or” for the power of the “and” to in your business achieve more.