Leaders reject “either / or” thinking

Every day I’m presented with a common choice in the software development space – I can either have it done correctly or I can have it done quickly. I’m asked, which do I want?

Another common challenge is that I’m told there are finite resources (staff) with a fixed amount of time. So given all the things I want to get accomplished, I must make trade-offs between what I want. After all, there’s only so much time.

In one of my first interviews in college, for a part-time office job in the Chancellor’s office, I was given three jobs that needed to be completed. Unfortunately, I was told in this interview scenario, I only had time for one. Which would I choose?

  • Input data from a five page list of names that needed to go into a database
  • Make 75 phone calls to see who would RSVP for an event
  • Meet with a vendor for several hours to prepare for an upcoming event

Mind you, this was in 1990, before the internet or smart phones were available.

My answer wasn’t what they expected. I said I’d do all three jobs:

  1. I would scan the pages using OCR to eliminate the data input
  2. I would host my own party and invite my friends to make the 75 phone calls in a race with a prize
  3. And I would sit down for the meeting since that wasn’t something I could pass to anyone else

I thought I’d done a good job of answering but it was clear that my interviewer didn’t like the answer. He wanted me to make a choice – apparently that was the whole goal of the question.

In short, I didn’t get that job. But in every job I’ve had since then, I’ve come to appreciate the value in thinking outside of the box and not getting anchored to the fixed options that are often presented to me.

This is why my favorite business book in the world is by Roger Martin, The Opposable Mind.

He presents tons of interviews and observations of what he calls integrative thinking. I strongly recommend it.

Because I’m not the first person who wants things done both well and quickly. I’m not the only one who wants everything worked on – all at the same time.

If P&G can do innovative ANd inexpensive, then maybe we can all do better. That’s why I believe that leaders don’t get caught using “either/or” thinking.

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