C-Suite Agenda

Businesses Aren’t Binary So Stop Seeking Binary Solutions

Hamish Knox

Humans are lazy, impatient and afraid of change, which enabled us to build the cities and societies we enjoy today; however, those hard-wired attributes often cause those of us in business to reach for binary solutions to non-binary problems.

A sampling of binary solutions we may have heard in executive meetings include:

  • Let’s move everything to the cloud
  • All of our marketing’s going to be digital
  • We should switch our sales team from base plus commission to 100% commission

Binary solutions are like a light switch. Today we do this and tomorrow we do that with no going back.

Binary solutions feel right because they sound easy (checking our “lazy” box), hold the promise of quick results (checks the “impatient” box) and because they are all-or-nothing options they minimize our fear of change by tapping into our “rip off the bandage” script.

Warning signs that we’re advocating for a binary solution include our language (e.g. using “need,” “should” “have to” when discussing our solution) and our behavior either through confirmation bias (discounting information that is contrary to our solution) or playing the psychological game, “why don’t you… yes, but”) in which we discount suggestions from our colleagues with “yes but” and a “reason” why their suggestion won’t work.

David Sandler said, “A winner has options. A loser puts all of their eggs in one basket.” Like politicians obsessed with winning instead of governing, binary solutions provide a momentary ego boost for the executive who “wins” with their solution, but that momentary win limits the potential for long term sustainable success.

When one of our colleagues advocates for a binary solution they are emotionally attached to that idea and the “win” that accompanies it. Using intellectual data to attempt to move an emotionally engaged person into an adult-adult discussion is futile.

Using the following four steps we’ll effectively challenge our colleague’s thinking about their binary solution and help them discover that they could be thinking more “slider bar” instead of “light switch.”

  1. Get permission to ask questions – this is not “Let me ask you a few things about this idea,” which is heard as “Incoming attack! Shields up!” Instead, “I’m curious to understand this idea more. May I ask you some questions so we get on the same page?”
  2. Ask more than one question – David Sandler said, “It typically takes three or more questions to get to the truth.” Where we fall down in our line of inquiry is expecting to ask the “magic bullet” question that causes our colleague to say, “You’re right this is a terrible idea!” Those questions don’t exist. Being agnostic to the response our colleague provides enables us to stay present, and ask more questions using our colleague’s responses to dig deeper into their thinking. Humans tend to not hear what they say the first time they say it. Using our colleague’s responses in our follow up questions gives them a moment to think “Did I say that?” which pulls them out of their reactionary mode and into a responsive mode where they can have an adult-to-adult conversation.
  3. Pre-mortem the results of their binary solution – as our colleague becomes less emotionally attached to their binary solution, cast them forward into the future to when their solution has been implemented with a question like, “So let’s say we were X months from now and your solution is implemented. What specific, measurable, observable results would you expect to see?” followed up by “What challenges did we run into in implementation and how did we overcome them?” This question is a showstopper because individuals proposing binary solutions typically focus only on the “everything will be wonderful” aspects of their solution and fail to consider or discount entirely the possibility of implementation challenges let alone failure. Having this type of emotional conversation without the emotion (because the challenges and/or failure is purely pretend) gives our colleague space and time to discover that their magic solution is less magical than they thought.
  4. Design a test that delivers specific, measurable, observable results in a near time frame – after going through the first three steps there may be elements of our colleague’s binary solution that would provide a payoff to our business. In that case design a test of those elements with key stop-or-go results and a timeline for both implementation and review. On reviewing the results of the test, confirm if a larger test is warranted or a full implementation can proceed. The ultimate implementation will contain elements of our colleagues original idea, but will be less binary than the original solution proposed.

Sometimes all or nothing is required. Outdated IT, sales or manufacturing might require a complete overhaul, but those instances are lessened if an organization has a quarterly cadence of planning, review and adjustment.

Until next time… go lead.

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Hamish Knox
Hamish Knox is the author of Accountability The Sandler Way and Change The Sandler Way. He is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Hamish informs, entertains, and motivates both leadership and rank-and-file sales teams to achieve at their full potential. Hamish Knox is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.