Dial Down The Binary

I’ve just been to Tasmania for a friend’s 50th birthday. Three of us spent a few days in a motorhome travelling around, in part to visit a few different whiskey distilleries.

My friend loves whiskey. 

Me? Not so much. I’ve never really taken to it, and over the years I’ve come to describe myself as a person who doesn’t like whiskey.

Except, on this trip, that identity was challenged.

At each distillery we visited, we were given a ‘flight’ of four tasting glasses, each with a different whiskey in it. As I worked my way through the varieties, and the days, I found my identity as someone who doesn’t like whiskey being challenged. 

No, I didn’t fall in love with whiskey. But I found myself appreciating some whiskeys more than others, and noticing more nuanced elements in their flavours that I’d never paid attention to before.

I used to think that all whiskeys were kind of alike and they were all, to me, yuck. Now I’m thinking that it’s not as simple as that, and that I could perhaps even come to appreciate the occasional whiskey!

I’m no longer a person that ‘doesn’t like whiskey’. That’s too simple. I’m a person who...well, it’s hard. Someone who both recoils from it and is learning to enjoy it? Something like that.

The point? If I’m in binary-thinking mode (e.g. ‘this is who I am’) I shut down the possibilities for change ever happening. If I’m in spectrum-thinking mode (‘I can take multiple perspectives here’) the possibilities for change open up.

As I observe the world, I see a place that is leaning towards the binary. At the global level, the commentary on wars between Israel and Palestine, or Ukraine and Russia, tend to have a binary bias. One side good, the other side bad. It’s increasingly the same in politics (40 countries have elections in 2024) I’m shuddering slightly as I think about how an over-reliance on binary thinking might shape the outcomes.

At a more immediate and personal level, I see time-pressed leaders leaning toward binary solutions. Organisational performance issue? A restructure will fix it. Team effectiveness issue? Get rid of the bad egg. That’ll sort it.

When we lead with binary, we can show decisiveness. We can show we’re getting on with it and taking action. It’s often an ego-trip that’s understandable, because we all have the need to be useful.

The world is not binary. The issues we face as leaders tend to be complex. They require us to:

  1. Slow down. Have the courage and structures that allow us to get off the rush-mill.
  2. Listen for what’s there. Like a good whiskey, when we really pay attention, we can notice the subtleties. Inviting other people in to offer their perspectives is a smart play here.
  3. Ask different questions. “What's the answer?” is not usually the best place to start. “What’s really going on?” And “What do we really want here?” are better places.
  4. Experiment. Think and act like a scientist. Try things with humility and curiosity to see what you can learn.
  5. Loosen our identity. This is the hard one. Are you prepared to let go of your identity just a little, and allow the possibilities that might exist on the other side of that to emerge? Check out Upgrade Your Identity for more on this.

For more like this, check out:

Cultivate Wisdom

Be An Experimentalist

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