Option C

Making hard choices is vital to successful leadership. But what if the options in front of you are less binary than they might appear? Let’s take a moment to pause and reflect.

  • Strategy, in the words of Roger Martin, is “a set of interrelated and powerful choices that positions the organization to win”.
  • Making these choices is often difficult because “it means doing some things at the expense of others”.
  • We agree with Martin. We often push our clients to make tough choices. And it often leads to stronger results.
  • But … we’ve also come to realize that a laudable commitment to making firm trade-offs can sometimes bring its own set of pitfalls.
  • The trap here is the false dilemma, also known as the either-or fallacy. It’s the tendency to simplify and reduce our choices to a binary A vs. B.
  • Social psychology explains the reasons for this very human tendency. We are naturally motivated to reduce cognitive dissonance—the state of holding beliefs that feel contradictory.
  • In other words, we like polar opposites more than paradoxes.
  • You don’t have to look too far for a headline that shows the downside of this tendency. 😬
  • prominent example from the marketing world is the prolonged debate between long-term brand building and short-term performance marketing.
  • Thanks to Binet and Field, most of us now recognize that this is not an either/or situation. But the allure of this false dilemma has proved very strong for many smart people.
  • Steve Bryant cites another example from the content marketing world, where he sees many leaders grappling with the false choice between boring-yet-effective and interesting-yet-ineffective.
  • The best way to avoid getting caught by a false dilemma is adopt a both/and mindset.
  • It’s about going beyond the binary—recognizing the value in ideas that may seem contradictory and charting a new path that makes room for them to blend together.
  • This HBR piece from 2016 applies this idea to business leadership in some depth.
  • According to the authors, the ideal both/and leader assumes there are multiple truths, assumes that resources are abundant (even if the spreadsheet says otherwise) and sees the role of management as coping with change.
  • If that feels like a tall order, we like this practical tip from Eric McNulty: “Deconstruct the binary. Walk back through the steps by which options A and B emerged. If all you get is a shrug from your collaborators, the process lacked rigor and should be revisited.”
  • The beauty of a both/and mindset is its ability to open new doors: “You often find that the best choice is some combination of A and B. The best elements of each can result in an option C that is superior to A or B.”
  • It’s this kind of unexpected combination that can lead to real marketing magic. Seth Godin compares it to the unique opening chord of the Beatles’ song Hard Day’s Night. An unusual combination of elements that acts as a distinctive signature.
  • As a marketer, you understand the value of uniqueness. So next time you’re presented with a binary choice, pause for a moment. Open yourself up to a little cognitive dissonance. Who knows—a magical option C could be right around the corner.
Issue #149
Aug 14, 2022

Further Reading