Examples of false black and white world views

I wrote previously that we are presented with black and white options far more than we should be. Back then I gave one example to emphasise the point that it’s much more helpful to see shades of grey, which is much closer to reality and affords more opportunities to act appropriately. Since then I’ve collected a few more examples. If we’re not careful they can be easy to miss….

Is the Labour party in crisis?

Right now the UK’s Labour party is fending off unwanted questions about how it handles anti-Semitism within its ranks. The leader, Jeremy Corbyn, denied a crisis when asked. But going by one Newsweek headline a crisis is assumed. Is it in crisis? It really only matters for the sake of headlines. Undoubtedly they have a big problem which has come at a bad time. But whether or not you label it a crisis doesn’t really help sort it out. Asking the question really only helps if you need to generate headlines.

The Today programme and the NHS (part I)

On 21 April 2016 (at 0709hrs, or 1 hour and 9 minutes in on iPlayer) there was an item on Today about the NHS announcing £2.4bn to help GPs. The presenter, John Humphrys, interviewed Maureen Baker of the Royal College of General Practitioners, who supported the increased funds. He wanted to know if this would bring more qualified staff into GPs’ practices. “Are they out there?” he asked Dr Baker.

It’s a binary question, and—again—not a helpful one. Of course there are doctors out there to be recruited into general practice. I’m sure you’ll find an excess of qualified doctors who will happily each take the whole £2.4bn and work as a GP. And I’m sure it will be impossible to find 2.4bn doctors who will do the job for just £1. Somewhere in between the curves of supply and demand will meet and there will be a balance. The question is not “Are the doctors out there?” but rather “How can we make the best use of our money, and in what ways will that improve healthcare in GPs’ practices?” And the answer will undoubtedly lead to lots of ideas on how to get the best results.

The Today programme and the NHS (part II)

A few days later (26 April 2016, at 0713hrs, or 1 hour 13 minutes in on iPlayer) the same programme discussed that day’s strike by junior doctors. NHS England’s National Incident Director, Anne Rainsberry, was interviewed by Sarah Montague who wanted to know about the dangers of the stike. “So lives will be at risk?” she asked.

Unfortunately the answer here is the same as the answer before. Of course lives are at risk, not least because hospitals always deal with life-and-death situations and by definition this means lives are at risk. But that’s an unhelpful answer due to an unhelpful question. The real question is how much more (or less) lives are at risk than if there had been no strike. Perhaps lives are more at risk because many doctors are not present. Perhaps lives are less at risk because hospitals made exceptional arrangements in a one-off effort to cover the gaps, combined with cancelling non-essential appointments. Perhaps an increased risk now will mean less overall risk in the future if the strike is successful in securing a better deal for doctors, and hence better care. Or perhaps there will be an increased risk now and no change in the future.

Once again the question is unhelpful to anyone except those wanting a good headline, and a direct answer would most likely have escalated a difficult situation, making Dr Rainsberry’s life more difficult than it already was. Fortunately she recognised this and did not answer the black and white question with a black and white answer. If you have some time it’s worth listening to, to see how she responds to over-simplified questions in a way that explains the situation in a more rounded way.

If you want less dramatic examples, away from the public headlines, here are some more. They may not lead to public headlines, but if we mishandle them they can lead to unwanted messages getting round our own organisation…

Is our data secure?

One of the reasons cybercrime is so significant is because success for the criminals usually means success at scale—the rewards are great. But if we look more widely, security happens at many levels. It covers theft of laptops, theft of the wages book, exposure and embarrassment of one person’s email, and more. Undoubtedly these small things can lead to big things, but as we saw from the TalkTalk data breach in 2015, it doesn’t need to be “all or nothing”. The original fear of the breach affecting 4 million customers was ultimately revised down to about 4% of that number.

The real question is not “Is our data secure?” but “How secure is our data?” And the answer will take in many different areas, and therefore present many opportunities for understanding and improving our data security.

Are we going to do PRINCE2 or Agile?

This is not a mutually exclusive choice. You’re unlikely to find a serious PRINCE2 practitioner implementing every suggestion from its handbook, just as you’re unlikely to find an experienced Agile practitioner implementing an Agile textbook verbatim. Both approaches have sensible tools, and if you drop the specialised language then you’re more likely to avoid a religious war between advocates of one or the other.


You can of course set yourself or a team a target. But if your sales target is £1m, then have you really failed if you only reach £0.95m? A binary approach to a target (either you’ve reached it or you haven’t) is deeply unhelpful and well worth avoiding. Over on his blog, James Lawther summaries three significant reasons why this is so. A much more productive approach is to set aspirational goals, but instead of a punishment/reward outcome, use the goals to drive continuous systemic improvement.

And there’s more…

It’s very easy to accept the picture that’s given to us, and it’s easy to miss any binary over-simplification that might have slipped in. But once we start seeking out shades of grey then it becomes progressively easier, and the result is that it becomes correspondingly easy to find constructive responses.

Photo by David Martyn Hunt