Finding wisdom in a binary world

Sometimes I think that the thirst for data, combined with a digital mindset, is reducing our analytical and critical thinking to a highly polarised, binary-driven view of the world.

Rather than recognizing that most ideas and concepts are composed in “technicolor” we are increasingly reducing our options, choices, responses and decisions to “black or white” conclusions. Everything has to be couched in terms of:

  • on/off
  • yes/no
  • true/false
  • positive/negative
  • for/against
  • like/dislike
  • friend/unfriend
  • connect/disconnect

It feels that our conditioning is driven by the need for certainty, the desire to be “right”, and the tendency to avoid disagreement/difference. However, uncertainty is more prevalent than we may like to admit. To illustrate what I mean, here are four personal learning experiences I would like to share by way of demonstrating that not everything can be reduced to black or white thinking:

1. The scenario is the same, but the context, therefore the answer,  is different

Although I was born and grew up in the UK, I completed part of my primary education in Australia. Before returning to the UK, I was required to complete the 11-plus exam, to determine which secondary school I would attend in England. (The exam was mainly designed to test literacy, numeracy and verbal reasoning.) Here’s a multiple choice question which I got “wrong”:

Q. Why do windows have shutters?

I chose “to keep out the sun” as my answer. In fact, the “correct” answer was “to keep out the wind”. The invigilator was kind enough to include a note to the examiners that my answer was based on the fact that I had been living in Australia, where window shutters are primarily designed to keep out the sun (and therefore the heat). Whereas in the UK, shutters are largely used as a protection against the wind.

2. The facts are the same, but the interpretation is different

While studying for my law degree, I had to write an essay on reforming the use and application of discretionary trusts, based on the current legislation and recent court cases. I argued in favour of an alternative approach to the relevant court decisions, and deliberately took a contrary view based on my social and political outlook at the time, and influenced by what I saw were changes in public policy.

To my great surprise, the tutor gave me one of my highest ever grades in that subject – even though she disagreed with my conclusions, she recognised that my reasoning was sound, and my interpretation was valid.

3. The intention may be “constructive”, but someone will always choose to see only the negative

Early in my career, I participated in a TV documentary series about different types of interview situations. As a local government officer, it was my role to advise members of the public on how to navigate the various regulations and policies in respect to accessing council services, as they related to their own particular circumstances.

One interview I conducted was included in the final broadcast. I thought my advice was objective, and based on widely accepted principles, but without advocating or recommending a specific course of action, as I believed it was my job to remain impartial yet factual. I later discovered that another local council used part of the same interview footage to train their own staff in how not to conduct an interview, because it could have been mis-interpreted as a way to get around the system. So, whereas I thought I was being constructive, someone in a position of authority chose to see it as a negative influence.

4. The assumptions may be reasonable, but the results often prove otherwise

Years later, I found myself having to defend a proposal to launch a smaller, and cheaper, version of a global product in a local market. The received wisdom among many of my colleagues was that the proposal would result in less revenue, even if customer numbers grew. As part of the initiative, I also advocated shutting down a legacy local product in the same market – partly to reduce production costs, and partly because very few customers were actually paying for this outdated service. Again, I faced resistance because a number of internal stakeholders thought customers would refuse to pay for a superior service, and that the business would end up alienating existing customers and, by extension, upsetting the local market.

Subject to a detailed customer migration plan, some very specific financial metrics and frequent status reports, the project was greenlighted. 12 months’ after implementation, the results were:

  • Comparable revenue was doubled
  • Overall production costs were halved
  • A significant number of new clients were signed up (including several from new market segments)

The closure of the legacy product did see the loss of some customers (about 10-15% of the legacy client base), but this was mostly non-paying business, and was more than offset by the increased revenue and customer growth. [In my experience, significant platform migrations and product upgrades can result in up to 20% of customers electing not to switch.]

What are we to conclude from this?

It’s totally understandable that businesses want to deal only with certainty (“just give me the facts…”) and often struggle to accommodate alternative or contrary perspectives. But despite the prevailing digital age of “ones and zeroes”, we are actually operating in a more fluid and diverse environment, where new business opportunities are going to be increasingly less obvious or come from non-traditional sources. While we may find comfort in sticking to core principles, we may end up missing out altogether if we are not prepared to adapt to changing circumstances: context is all about the difference between “data” and “knowledge”.

Wisdom comes from learning to acknowledge (and embrace) ambiguity; individuals, teams, organisations and businesses are more likely to benefit from greater diversity in their thinking, resulting in richer experiences and more beneficial outcomes.


1 thought on “Finding wisdom in a binary world

  1. Pingback: The Great Data Overload Part 1: Meaning vs Megabytes | Content in Context

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