General management

When it’s okay to use black and white thinking

Photo by hjlI’ve previously said—frequently—that moving away from black and white, or binary, thinking is generally a very positive thing. I previously gave examples of this in predicting the future, subversion, elections, happiness and more.

However, I have to admit that sometimes it is useful to drop things into clear categories. I might say things like, “That’s not valuable,” or “That takes too long.” If I was really avoiding black and white thinking I might instead say things like “That provides about £30,000 of value,” or “That’s longer than the previous piece of work,” rather than simply categorise something as “not valuable” or “too long.”

So I’ve had to ask myself when it’s most helpful seeing things as shades of grey, and when dropping things into black and white categories is helpful. In short, avoiding black and white thinking is really valuable when we need to find solutions or options, or otherwise think creatively. It helps us see distinctions more accurately, and helps us not mistakenly separate things which are actually very similar. In contrast, categorising things—having a black and white view—is useful when we have to make choices or decisions.

This is the difference between creating options and choosing between them. Most of the time we need to ensure we have created good options or have a well-rounded view of a situation. Sometimes we then need to choose between them.

A simple example of this is a piece of work undertaken by a CEO friend. He arrived a company that he saw as being over-committed, with too many projects in progress. With a team of staff he marked all the projects on a two-axis grid showing how long each would take and how much value it would deliver. Then he ordered all projects to stop except those which were delivering high value relatively quickly.

In the second step of that process he did split the projects into “high value/low value” and “too long/not too long”. That might look like black and white thinking, but that’s not how he assessed the projects in the first step. In the first step he asked a more open question about their time and value. This produced a more honest view of the project landscape. Only when this was done could he assess what “high value” and “too long” actually meant.

So I will continue to push to avoid black and white thinking, and prefer to see things in more graduated terms. But sometimes categorising things after that step does help with decision making.

Photo by hjl

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