The Tyranny of Either/Or Thinking

“Either we sell products or we sell services.  You can’t be good at both.  They are fundamentally different businesses.”  This is common wisdom in the computer business. The Product business is driven by fulfillment rates and the Services business is ruled by utilization.  The operating principles of Utilization are very different from Fulfillment.  This is true.  But the underlying question is a false choice!  And as rational beings we humans do this all the time.


It is our rational minds that want to make life easy.  When I make this choice my life will be easier – i.e  I will be relieved of all of the tension of the opposing view.  But, false choices rarely lead to sustained happiness.  We swing from one end of the pendulum to the other almost recklessly searching for balance.

I was introduced to the concept of polarities while in Washington, DC.  The basic concept suggests that polarities exist in everything because the positive and negative elements in the universe are meant to create balance.

Let’s play with a common example.  As a company grows there need to be systems and processes put in place that create common methods so that customers can experience consistent service levels.  But, taken too far any good thing is going to become a bad thing.  Too much process leads to red tape and bureaucracy and employees who feel tied up by the system leading to an inability to deliver creative service in the moment.

If we swing the pendulum and cut red tape and processes we end up with anarchy or at least a system that leaves all decisions up to the choice of customer service agents.  And then we are back to a world of inconsistent approaches and solutions.

We need to move beyond Either/Or thinking and here is the key.  A lot of times you might think that the goal is to create balance.  Balance is like building a compromise.  A little bit of process and a little bit of creative problem solving.    But who likes compromise?   The real key is to accept the polarities, understand the upside benefits and the downside problems of both ends of the polarity and only then committing to find an approach that creatively expects to create leverage from both ends of the polarity.

So, in our example, great processes might be engineered as elegant and built to provide great options and alternatives while still expecting the creativity of the individual to shine through.  By being uncomfortable in the logical conundrum but maintaining the belief that LEVERAGE is created by using AND. This is called resolving the polarity.

Great Brands are created by not accepting simple trade-offs.  Would Apple be the company it is today if Steve Jobs had accepted either/or trade-offs?

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