Monday, March 21, 2005

The power of "and"

Sumantra Ghoshal said it. Today, William Raspberry (free subscription required) said it. AT de Lange has said it.

Now I'll say it: we do ourselves and our colleagues a disservice when we act as if there are only two alternatives and they are mutually exclusive: hard-nosed or touchy-feely, profit or people, the environment or the economy, Left or Right. Often when we do that, we follow up by saying that one of the alternatives is good and the other bad. Life is much richer than that, even business life.

I'm beginning to suspect that categorizing everything as mutually exclusive extremes, as in the preceding list, is but one example of the human failing that led to "the map is not the territory." Maps are handy, but only when we realize they are aids, not reality. They help us find our way quickly, but they're less often helpful in puzzling situations. When faced with a puzzle, we're more likely to understand how to proceed when we ignore the map and investigate the reality or, lacking that, when we try multiple maps to see if one (or a combination) can help us make sense of the puzzle we face.

Certainly the best answer is sometimes at one of the extremes, as one might expect if best answers were randomly strewn about the spectrum. I've found we can save ourselves a lot of work and make much useful progress if we stay open to the idea that the best answer to a question might also be found somewhere in the middle, perhaps using bits of one extreme and the other, or perhaps using yet another idea not part of either extreme.

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