Decisions Don’t Have to Be Either-Or

Decisions Don’t Have to Be Either-Or

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

For many in the business world trade-offs and strategy go hand in hand. It’s all about deciding how to differentiate yourself and then implementing that plan with a laser-like focus. That means making some tough calls and hard trade-offs that by saying yes to one thing, we have to say no to something else.

Now that has often proven to be a successful and profitable strategy. But today’s guests say that choosing between different paths may mean that people miss some hidden possibilities. They say that we should think about things more holistically and that instead of thinking either/or, we should change our mindset to more of a both/and approach.

To talk about what that means for individuals and companies, we’re joined now by Wendy Smith, a professor of management at the University of Delaware, and Marianne Lewis, professor of management and Dean of the Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati.

Together they wrote the new book, “Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems.” Wendy, thanks for coming on the show to talk about this.

WENDY SMITH: Thanks Curt. Nice to be here.

CURT NICKISCH: And Marianne, thank you too.

MARIANNE LEWIS: Oh, it’s such a pleasure. Thank you.

CURT NICKISCH: Well, let’s start with a bit more about this issue, right? Why some people find that nuance hard and like to just make an either/or decision. Why is that so tempting, I guess, in a business setting?

WENDY SMITH: We are wired to think about the either/or. When we’re faced with a decision that feels really uncertain, it creates anxiety. We want to reduce that anxiety and the way to do it is to make a clear decision. And as psychology and research has shown us again and again, we want to be consistent with those decisions.

And so we’re wired for either/or thinking which indeed can be helpful sometimes, but misses the bigger picture of possible creativity and broader and more sustainable solutions if we get into both/and thinking. Both/and thinking is looking at competing ideas and before making decisions, before coming up with broader solutions, doing a deeper dive to understand each side, and then figure out how these two sides are synergistic, where the wholism is, where there is integration between them before we make a decision, get sucked down one side and miss an entire other side.

So effective organizations need to both think about what they’re doing today, their existing world, how they’re managing operationally and efficiently, and they need to innovate and try something new and think about change for tomorrow. And if the organization is going to be successful, they have to do both. They can’t just focus on today or focus on tomorrow. Be really good at their execution or be really good at their innovation and research and development. They have to be able to do both.

CURT NICKISCH: Marianne, especially now, in the context of the pandemic where a lot of organizations are sort of fighting their way through the uncertainty of the pandemic, leaders maybe have become more aware of needing to deal with paradox, right? And/or balancing tensions. How do you think that’s changed this otherwise very, how do you think that’s changed the thinking of trade offs versus both/and?

MARIANNE LEWIS: One of the things that Wendy and I have seen in our research, and it’s been going on for over 20 years now, is that there are three factors that seem to intensify our experience of tensions. And that is change, plurality and scarcity.

CURT NICKISCH: We kind of had all those in the pandemic.

MARIANNE LEWIS: Yeah, it was the perfect storm of all three. What we find with these tensions, this tug of war that you feel in these really challenging decisions, they’re a double edged sword, right? On the one hand that sort of friction opens up all sorts of possibilities. I mean, it can get your mind going. It can get your adrenaline running. As you said, you could really start to dig in and it can be really paralyzing. It can be anxiety provoking. There can be a host of things going on both in our mind, but also in our emotions that keep us focused on what we’ve been doing in the past. It can actually drive us to intensify our current actions rather than change. Or the other approach we see quite a bit, which I think you said as well, it can cause us to be paralyzed and so overanalyze to the point that we don’t make a call.

CURT NICKISCH: So when you’re feeling this, should you be afraid of it?

MARIANNE LEWIS: No, when you’re feeling those tensions, you truly do feel it right in your gut. We know what that’s like. In fact, one of the things that we found through so many of our studies is that paradoxical thinkers are those that really think in the both/and, find comfort in the discomfort.

One of the leaders we talk about quite a bit in the book is Paul Polman, who I’ve been studying for quite some time. When he was leading Unilever he had such a paradoxical strategy in the Unilever sustainable living plan. And when he would be given ideas, solutions to problems and they felt really cut and dry, he’d immediately stop and say, go back and find more. Go back and find the opposites. Feel the tension, feel the discomfort and then let’s talk. Because if not, we probably haven’t pushed far enough.

CURT NICKISCH: There was a quote in your book that really grabbed me, the problem is not the problem. The problem is how we think about the problem.

MARIANNE LEWIS: We use that so much and it really does stop us. And we found that in the work we can use it to have really valuable discussions with leaders to say, how have you framed the issue? Because problems are messy. We put the boundaries around them. And as soon as you’ve put the boundaries around them, you’ve set limitations in what the solutions might be. So really questioning that framing is a first step.

WENDY SMITH: Again, it’s not, we talk about changing the question as the way into both/and thinking. We think about it like when people want to learn to meditate, a lifelong practice to learn. And the way into that is breathing, is taking the first breath and focusing on your breath. We think about changing the question as the entree into both/and thinking by shifting up the way that we are framing, the way that we understand our problems.

CURT NICKISCH: Marianne, can you think of like how changing the question really kickstarted a different kind of conversation?

MARIANNE LEWIS: Well, I’ll give you an example that we’re seeing quite a bit now and is the question of hybrid work. And what is the right mix of home and remote?

CURT NICKISCH: It’s both/and right?

MARIANNE LEWIS: It is both/and, but the challenge of it, which I love that’s immediately where you’re at. What we’re finding, and I’m curious where you’re seeing it as well, is that it’s not the best of both worlds. In fact, it’s sometimes very often the worst of both worlds. Is that people are when they do come into the office for their in-person days, they find that they’re in a ghost town, they find that they’re in all remote meetings. They’ve just navigated a commute and they’re thinking, why am I here? Right?

But likewise, they’re finding that at home, they’re losing connections to people. They’ve lost the ability to read body language and to know people well enough to understand the nuances of that, it’s just been too long. And at the same time, the lines that have been so blurred between say family or life and work that actually work starts to take over everything as an example. Right? And burnout happens to your highest performers.

So the example of how do you work through both/and, yes, people are asking what is the right mix? Well, to this point we’d say really dive in and think about what do you value most from the opportunities to be in the office? And what are the limitations? And do the exact same thing on the home site. What do you treasure for the opportunity to have the deep work kind of opportunity space at home and what are its limits? And how do you put those together to say for us, and even better for both for the organization and for an individual, what’s the right blend? Now we’ve opened so many options this doesn’t become such a cut and dry question. It becomes nuanced. What’s the culture of the organization, the strategy? And what’s the nature of our talented workforce? And how do we figure out that blend?

CURT NICKISCH: Wendy, in the book you two also wrote about how both/and thinking can help break vicious cycles. Tell us more about that.

WENDY SMITH: Yeah. So what we find is that this either/or thinking leads us into a vicious cycle and sort of this downward spiral where, as Marianne was saying before, it’s the worst of both worlds, not the best.

CURT NICKISCH: And so you’re never really coming up with a solution essentially. Is that what leads to a vicious cycle? You’re sort of, I don’t know, we need to do more mission-oriented stuff. Or no we’ve been doing too much of that now back to profit driving ventures or I don’t know.

WENDY SMITH: Right. Exactly. It starts with what we talk about is intensification or getting stuck on one side. We talk about as like falling down a rabbit hole. So, we’re really focused on, if you talk about a social enterprise or socially responsible, because we’re really focused on the mission oriented stuff. And we get so focused on that until we realize that we’ve got problems because we’re not making our numbers and we’re not financially sustainable. But we’re so stuck in the inertia of that one side, it’s hard to shift and move. So we talk about that as being in as intensification.

But then, when we realize that we are not making our numbers, all of a sudden we completely shift to the opposite side. We talk about this as over-correcting. And the image that we sometimes use is a wrecking ball where you’ve sort of lifted up and sort of killed all of the beneficial stuff that goes along with the detrimental. And so now you’ve shifted completely to focus in this case, for example, on your financial side, that you’ve lost your mission. And so you’re over-correcting, going back and forth between the two, and the third part that’s problematic is that what you end up doing is having two groups of people each stuck in their own side and just shooting out against one another.

CURT NICKISCH: We’re the ones who make the money here.

WENDY SMITH: Exactly. Right. And so there’s your polarization. So instead of the whole organization shifting from one to another over-correcting, then you’re stuck in polarization. Instead of really sort of being in conversation with one another and coming up with a better place. And so we see this all the time in organizations where if you’re talking about sustainability issues, you’ve got your sustainability officer and your finance people fighting with one another. Or if we’re talking about innovation, you’ve got your R&D people fighting with your finance people, rather than both sides listening to and valuing what each has to offer and being in conversation to come up with a better and more creative solution.

CURT NICKISCH: You’ve done a lot of work with organizations, but you’ve also applied this to individuals. Can you tell how, thinking of problems as a both/and problem or trying to reframe the question, can help you in something that you’re struggling with just yourself?

WENDY SMITH: Well, I often tell the story, or stories if you will, of what it’s like to parent and partner. My husband and I often bring two very different perspectives to the table around parenting. And so we have really similar values-

CURT NICKISCH: You’re smiling while you say this?

WENDY SMITH: I do. We do, we have very similar values and yet we often take different approaches to get to those values. And what we have learned over the years is how to pause and listen to one another and be able to value what each brings rather than just be in the ongoing conflict of I’m right, no I’m right. And that has led us to some more creative solutions. Whether it’s around how do we think about discipline for chores, or how do we think about discipline for screen time. Or whatever other decisions, ongoing daily decisions come up. He’s got incredible ways to think about things that I don’t know that I always valued and appreciated. And taking our own medicine I have to step back and say, okay, how can I listen to him, hear what he has to say and be able to think about other solutions before we come to a decision.

MARIANNE LEWIS: I think one of the ways that we see this at the individual level is with leadership and was with the tensions you feel as a leader. We can feel like, for example, compassion and competency can feel like they’re at odds. We’ve all felt that, I know I’ve felt that in my own leadership.

But instead of thinking this is a trade off, well, I have to be tough so I can’t be compassionate. This goes back to a term we’ve heard since we were all children of tough love. No, they work absolutely synergistically. And we might think about what is the power of compassion to build trust, to better understand individuals, to work through challenges, creating safe and encouraging environments. And at the same time, how do we make sure we have the rigor and discipline of targets where we’re holding the bar for high performance and recognize it as it is. And then how do those pieces come together?

And it’s not going to surprise you they come together beautifully because those kind of environments are exactly where people want to work who really do want excellence for themselves, their organization, their teams. And they want to be, we spend a lot of time in our work, we want to be in a place where we like each other, we support each other. We feel that there’s some care going on. So that’s just one example, but that’s more the leader saying to herself/himself, what am I trying to put forward? What am I really trying to tap into of my own strengths and my needs, as well as those around me. And I think that plays out in our style.

We live in tensions every day as leaders. And I think talking to great leaders, really hearing how they’re working through it, is fascinating. Because they don’t see them as trade-offs. They know that they’ve got to do both. The question is how. And that’s again, a nuanced and really a dynamic decision making.

WENDY SMITH: The idea of navigating paradoxes is first that we get beyond these two ideas is first that we get beyond these two ideas as opposing. And we think about the interdependencies. The next piece is thinking about how one element informs and enables the other. Focusing on ourself, focusing on others. The more that we focus on others, the more resources that we have to be able to focus on ourselves. The more that we focus on ourselves and what we need, the more that we create the energy to focus on others.

Or if we think about compassion and competence, the more competent we are, the more that we have the confidence to be compassionate. The more compassionate that we are, the more that we create the opportunities for our competence. Or in leadership, the more vulnerable we are, the more effective we can be. The more effective we are, the more that we have the confidence to be vulnerable. So these things define each other. They lead to one another.

CURT NICKISCH: I’m curious if it’s easier if you want to get started with adopting a both/and approach, is it easier to do in your own life because it’s kind of present and obvious to you? Or is it easier to do in your work life because everything’s a little bit more at a distance and it’s maybe a better starting place.

WENDY SMITH: I mean, Curt, it’s a professional hazard, but I would take that either/or question and turn it around and ask-

CURT NICKISCH: Why not both?

WENDY SMITH: How can doing this in your personal life enable your work and leadership and how can doing this in your… I think I would ask that question.

CURT NICKISCH: Just start thinking about things differently, if you can.

MARIANNE LEWIS: Now I will say, think we’ve both found that starting at a personal level, just to think about your own dilemmas, gets your mind working about what is the feeling, right? Get your thinking about, I can feel the tug of war. Then often what we do we say, now pause on that, and then we’ll shift. And we’ll oftentimes shift to a third party. Because in some ways, the first step to really understand how this works, it works best if you put something out there that’s neutral. Because these issues of navigating paradoxes take your head and your heart and they’re challenging.

And so if you take something that you don’t have a horse in the race, you can watch people and pretty quickly figure out, oh yeah. And then walk through, change the question, let’s separate and connect. Let’s think about how we’re going to build some balancing and dynamics over time and then we come back to their individual questions. And even better, we can come back and say let’s put a really challenging organizational or team question on the table and work through it together. But I think we’ve found that third one, let’s get together around a table to work through, actually benefits most when we’ve thought about it neutrally and thought about it personally.

WENDY SMITH: It is the case that when we try and teach these ideas to leaders and organizations, they feel their own tensions most poignantly, but can’t see their both/and possibilities as easily as they can see the possibilities for both/and when they don’t feel the tensions as intensely. So the goal is to help people feel their own tensions and then be able to apply that both/and thinking to their own situation. But it is true, it helps to start with looking at both/and approaches for other people’s situations, because those are the moments where we can see it better when we’re not emotionally engaged.

CURT NICKISCH: What are some of your favorite ways that people in organizations show their willingness to do this? What are some of your favorite sort of phrases or questions or things you can say. You talked about Paul Polman earlier. What would you like to have said and heard more often in a meeting at the office or among colleagues?

WENDY SMITH: Some of the leaders that I’ve spoken to have been able to communicate both/and thinking to their organizations through a lot of really creative approaches. And oftentimes it comes with stories or metaphors or other ways so that people can understand it at the level that they are most able to engage. And so one of the leaders that we talk about in the book, and that I’ve worked with closely, is Terri Kelly, who is the CEO of WL Gore and Associates. Gore was a company that was very much focused on small teams and working in small teams and she needed to help them develop an enterprise-wide global structure. So they were talking about both being global and local, and they would use the metaphor of breathing in and breathing out. You have to do both. We can’t choose between them. So let’s figure out how to breathe in and breathe out.

Another leader that I’ve studied and that has really, very thoughtful about paradoxes and both/and is Zita Cobb. She was living on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, and she created the Fogo Island Inn, which is an inn in order to help redevelop the community of Newfoundland, of Fogo Island in Newfoundland.

It was very much about how do you help modernize this dying community while holding deeply to their traditions and their cultures? Bring together the new and the old, the social and the financial. And how do you create local communities connected to our global world? So they use the image of a cauliflower. And the image is that we are all connected in the world by this really strong stem, the stronger the stem is the more effective the florets are, but we all live in these unique, distinct florets. So think about, they talk about cauliflower thinking to think about the relationship between global and local. And so we’ve seen of leaders use very creative language to effectively communicate these ideas.

CURT NICKISCH: Marianne, did you have anything to add there?

MARIANNE LEWIS: Well, I think communication is a key challenge and opportunity for leaders around both/and thinking. I mean, Paul Polman and others have said the same thing. One of the challenges, when you’re using both/and thinking, is people like their leaders to be decisive and clear and consistent. So you can come off as being, wait a minute is he waffling? Is he unsure? Or is he sending mixed messages? And so Paul would sometimes say, I have to be crystal clear, we are doing both. We have to make sure the social and the financial are working together. And today I’m concerned about our numbers, and we’re going to do a deep dive into the finances. But tomorrow we’ll shift gears.

So the point being, how do you actually manage this on an ongoing basis? We call this being consistently inconsistent. This actual kind of tight rope walking between two approaches or multiple approaches. And it’s more about a series of micro shifts between opposing views. So, a tight rope walker is kind of keeping her or his eyes on the future, progressing and trying not to veer too far left or right as they’re moving forward. It’s a really dynamic approach and you can see it in the communications.

CURT NICKISCH: What other things can leaders do to create this environment where people embrace the uncertainty, recognize the tension and also try to work through it rather than going to one side or the other of it?

MARIANNE LEWIS: We talked about being consistently inconsistent or this notion of tight rope walking. I think it’s important to stress that the other approach, in fact, the one that people, I think typically envision when they hear both/and thinking, is that of win-wins, or creative integrations. We use the metaphor of a mule, right? Stronger than a horse, smarter than a donkey. And that sort of hybrid is important. It’s really about bringing together the best of both worlds, as we said before. And it’s rare. It’s more rare than you would think to have those aha moments.

We talk about brilliant minds like Einstein, right? Who was thinking about quantum physics because he was asking the question, how can something be both in motion and at rest simultaneously? This was the birth of quantum physics and so much more to come. But that was a classic mule. Much more likely is our continuing dynamic balancing of this consistent and consistency. So I would make that note because I do think there’s some misconceptions that both/and thinking is this beautiful creative integration. And they just, they’re a bit rare. And that’s okay. Because they can’t happen through the balancing actually.

CURT NICKISCH: Marianne and Wendy, what do you think the biggest misconception about, what is the biggest misconception about both/and thinking that’s out there that you’d like to clear up?

MARIANNE LEWIS: I think one of the misconceptions is that it’s obvious and it’s easy. We’ve had people say to us when they see the title of the book, well, duh, right? Isn’t this what you do? You look, as you said, for the best of both worlds? Well, if it was obvious and easy, it would happen all the time. It’s not the norm. Our norm is to really think about how do we split things apart, do the classic way to pros and cons, make a decision to move. And we tend to do that in ways that can reinforce that our decisions A or B, tend to stay pretty closely on the same sides as we’ve done before, because we have this reinforcing cycle. And knowing that, really understanding that maybe it’s not as easy as it looks, helps us do what Wendy said earlier, take the breath, right? Step backwards and really think, how do I frame this question? Am I separating and connecting? Is there some dynamic here at play that I could use more to my advantage?

WENDY SMITH: I would also add that one of the things that we hear a lot about as well, isn’t there real value in fighting for your side, because that’s how you get to a better solution? And certainly when it comes to politics and political polarization, we’re not seeing that today. And in fact, one of the things that we hope with these ideas is that we can get them into the hands of people to really navigate some of the big challenges that we have in the world. Not by fighting against one another, but really by listening to and valuing different perspectives and finding better solutions. So I think one of the misconceptions is that we get to better solutions by fighting for our side better. And I think we find that’s not true.

CURT NICKISCH: I also just thought of that quote: when you see a fork in the road, take it.




CURT NICKISCH: That sums it up in some ways too. Well, Wendy and Marianne, this has been really great. Thanks so much for sharing your work with us.

WENDY SMITH: Thanks for having us.


CURT NICKISCH: That’s Marianne Lewis of the University of Cincinnati and Wendy Smith of the University of Delaware. They wrote the new book, “Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems.”

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This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.