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The lure of binary decisions

More people had died in the first month of World War I than in the entire US Civil War (~750K). The Belgian / German / French battles took off like a forest fire, leaving more than a hundred thousand dead each week of that first month.

At the time, John Maynard Keynes said World War I wouldn’t last a year. He’s quoted as saying something along the lines of “As soon as financial liquidity dries up, the combatants will be forced to come to terms.

World War I lasted four years and four months. 20 million people died.

It’s a good illustration about making decisions (or coming to a conclusion) based on normal decision making parameters and processes for normal times. World War I was far from normal.

For that reason, when you hear “This can’t last…the economy”, consider the mindsets, data, & thought processes that yielded such comments.

The limits of binary decisions

We’ve limited ourselves to binary decisions for decades. This party or that party. My ego vs. your ego. This skin color, that skin color. Your school vs. my school. My needs vs. yours. This county vs. that county. This state or region vs. that state or region. Their rage vs ours. Often, the result is that we demand that something (or someone) must lose in order for our thing (or us) to win.

We’ve observed others making decisions this way as we grew up, or as our careers advanced. We learned to make decisions by watching others do so, right or wrong.

What I’m getting to is the idea that there’s “normal” and “whatever this is”, as if there can only be two possibilities. It’s the same thing Keynes appeared to be looking at. None of us are immune to it. Keynes was a pretty smart guy – and still, it appears he fell under the spell of either / or. The businesses that don’t adjust, that don’t consider what’s going on in the minds of their clientele.. what have they missed?

We have to get better at making decisions. While some decisions are either / or, quite a few aren’t. Be careful not to assume that your only choice is this or that.

Are there any other options?

The next time you need to make a decision, consider every other choice you have – even the ones that might seem stupid under “normal” conditions. That includes considering the choice of doing nothing at all. While doing nothing isn’t always a good choice, it’s a possibility. Ruling it out without any consideration avoids the thought processes involved. The ideas you ponder when considering doing nothing can absolutely impact the option you eventually choose.

Your fallback position is that “old normal”. Maybe in your business, the current normal, the new normal(s) and the old normal are more or less the same. For many businesses & customers, they aren’t.

The current normal

Current normal? Yes. While recent events tend to make us think of new normal vs. old normal (there’s that binary choice again), you don’t have to think too hard to realize that for some businesses, there have been a series of “normals” this year. Each week or two has been a bit of a moving target, each one its own normal, depending on what your business does.

That series of normals offer lessons and things to think about, whether you experience them first hand in your business, or externally as a customer or interested observer.

Each “normal” has provided conditions to deal with internally under your roof as well as with suppliers and service vendors you use. It certainly supports the theorem that “One is the worst number in business” that we’ve discussed over the years (ie: one customer / supplier / key employee, etc).

Don’t get comfortable

If future “normals” last longer, we’ll be tempted to assume the newest, longest lasting normal is going to stick. Assuming that could lure you back into either / or binary decision making.

I suggest adopting a flexible, open minded, inquisitive, research, and data-driven decision making process that has you and your people repeatedly on the lookout for tiny movements that signal bigger changes.

Maybe you’ve always done this. If not, there’s no time like the present to start. There may be a new normal at some point, but it isn’t likely to announce itself upon arrival. Use the current state of change to hone your decision making skills. Keep getting better at it.

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash