Tech & Work

Choosing between A and B? What if the answer is C?

Binary decision-making is a useful strategy when correctly applied. But the strategy also has a number of shortcomings. Bob Artner explains the risks and rewards.


This article originally appeared on our sister site, TechRepublic.

The great Will Rogers once said, “It ain't what you don't know that hurts you. It's what you do know that ain't so.” I’ve always taken that to be a warning to check your assumptions before making any decision. It’s meant to guard us against hubris, or false pride.

In this column, however, I want to look at a specific type of assumption. All too often, IT managers confront problems that are presented as either/or decisions: Should I choose A or B? To be honest, I think many of us enjoy the clarity of that kind of decision—not too many options to choose from. Pick one and move on. In what follows, I’m going to point out the pitfalls of relying too much on this kind of thinking.

Binary decision-making
What we’re talking about here is binary decision-making—framing a decision as one of the following:
  • Go/no go choice: Do I buy that new car or not? Should I order a dessert? Do I quit my job? These are all variations of the same thing: choosing whether or not to pursue a particular option.
  • Either/or choice: Do I buy the Explorer or the Tahoe? Should I order dessert or a cup of coffee? Should I quit my job now or wait until I find a new one first? These are restatements of the first set of questions in the either/or format, where you must choose between two alternatives.

Whether you’re picking between A/not A or A/B, you’re still making a binary decision: selecting one of two options.

Binary decision-making can be useful for a variety of reasons. First of all, some decisions are truly binary. If you want to see your favorite team play, you’ve basically got two choices: seeing them in person, or seeing them on TV. Make up your mind and move on.

Binary decision-making can also clarify your choices when you’re overwhelmed with data. Suppose you put out an RFP for an outsourcing project and get 20 different vendor responses. Instead of trying to immediately select the best vendor, you might want to whittle the list down to the top two and then drill down on those as you make your decision.

Finally, binary decision-making can also help you gauge the seriousness of a particular issue. For example, suppose you’re trying to judge the morale of your department. You suspect it’s not good, but you want to get a handle on just how bad things are. You could create an extensive survey and distribute it to all employees, but it still might not capture what you need to know.

On the other hand, suppose you asked your employees a single question: “If our competitor offered you 10 percent more money, would you seriously consider leaving us to join it?”

All things being equal (job security, etc.), 10 percent is really not enough extra salary to justify quitting a job and starting over with something new. Therefore, if a significant percentage of your employees answered this binary decision with a “Yes,” you know you’ve got a real problem on your hands.

Binary decision-making and false dichotomy
As we’ve just seen, binary decision-making is important, and it has a number of uses. However, it also has several important limitations. Most significantly, it can lead to a false dichotomy.

Logicians use the terms false dichotomy or false dilemma to refer to a specific kind of logical fallacy that assumes that there are only two possible answers to a particular question. For example, here is a false dichotomy:

“You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.”

This is a false dichotomy because it implies only two choices. As this example from the 1960s demonstrates, false dichotomies can be powerful rhetorical arguments. They’re often used to sway opinion a particular way.

I’m all in favor of powerful rhetorical arguments, but not all decisions should be made on the basis of rhetoric. Here are some examples of false dichotomies that an IT manager might encounter:
  • If you’re not going to build it yourself, you’re going to have to buy our solution: Vendors like to imply that theirs is the only solution that will answer all your needs and that your only alternative is to build the application yourself, ignoring the fact that there might be other vendor solutions out there.
  • You’re going to need the space eventually, so you might as well buy it now: Storage manufacturers use this argument to try to encourage customers to buy more capacity than they need. However, while it may be true that storage needs will always increase, it doesn’t follow that the only options are: (1) buy from vendor A now, or (2) buy from vendor A later.
  • We offer the same functionality as [insert vendor name here] at 30 percent less cost: This is false on a couple of different levels. First, the products might not offer the same features. Second, there may be other vendors out there to consider.

These are some of the false dichotomies given to you by vendors. However, even more damaging, in my opinion, is when you start to impose false dichotomies on yourself.

By viewing all your decisions as either/or, you drastically reduce your ability to find creative solutions for your management problems. After all, making a binary decision is pretty easy: It’s not A, so it must be B! Often, once a manager has disproved A, he or she will automatically select B, not bothering to verify whether B is actually correct.

Don’t make the mistake of always assuming you have only two options.

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