Escaping black and white thinking—in pictures

The other day I was discussing with Tom Gilb my approach for breaking out of black and white thinking. I was saying that when presented with two undesirable options it’s too easy to fixate on those, when we could instead create other solutions by imagining how those two options actually exist on a sliding scale—more “shades of grey” than “black and white”.

Tom asked if I could express that in a diagram. I only managed to do it in three diagrams, but I thought I’d share them here. I’ve found this approach so useful that I use it in everyday life all the time. I’ve previously given examples from politics and public life as well as from work life, including risk management.

First, we are presenting with two apparently-binary options. If we’re happy with those then that’s fine. But very often we want to do better.

Second, with a little imagination we can often find that the two options really exist on a spectrum—there is some dimension of variability. Now we have many more options.

This step does take some practise. It is difficult at first, but I’ve found it gets much easier.

Previously I gave the example of asking whether it was possible to find more doctors for the NHS given an extra £2.4bn. This appears to be a binary question—either we can find them or we can’t. But one dimension between Yes and No might be how many we can find. We’d definitely find one doctor willing to accept a single £2.4bn pay packet; we won’t find 2.4bn doctors willing to work for £1. And there are plenty of numbers (and therefore options) in between.

Third, once we’ve found that variability, we can go further and find even more dimensions of variability. Now we have even more options. We can also start to combine them.

Again, this all takes practise, but again it gets easier.

With our doctors example we might imagine some further dimensions, or degrees of variability. For example: How well-qualified they are; when they are available; how much time they commit each month; the duration of their commitment; their areas of expertise; how much support they need; where they might work. You might imagine others.

I find this general approach very useful in generating alternative solutions and ideas. I hope these diagrams are helpful.