Double-edged swords and paradoxical choices

‘Either/or’ choices

Most board deliberations and policy analyses are conducted using an ‘either/or’ approach. A set of (usually three or four) options is devised, from which one is to be favoured over others. You can have the answer in one of the red, blue, or green boxes – but you can’t have two or more answers.

Decision making is often defined as a process of choosing (one) among alternative options or courses of action for the purpose of achieving one or more goals. The option of choosing a combination of options may sometimes be considered, but in my experience, this would be quite rare.

The MECE Model

The concept of MECE thinking, devised by then McKinsey Consultant Barbara Minto, tended to support this ‘either/or’ approach by arguing that a set of options or ideas should be mutually exclusive (distinctly separate and not overlapping), and collectively exhaustive (covering all possible options). That model has dominated consulting engagements for decades, and remains a popular ‘lens’ through which managers and directors see their decision-making activities.

The MECE model was never meant to be used in isolation from other analytic aids and common sense, but it has been criticised by some for failing to account for:

  • extraneous data
  • (paradoxical) situations where mutual exclusivity is not desirable, or
  • circumstances where some level of redundancy may be required
    (See ‘Beyond/and’ Thinking below)

Careful what you aim (wish) for

Even when you have used ‘either/or’ thinking and made a decision in favour of a single option, you may trigger developments or outcomes beyond those you were aiming for.

The expression ‘double-edged sword‘ implies that a decision or action which appears to help can also harm.

When young Damocles hung around the court of King Dionysius II of Syracuse, he saw the trappings of power and authority and thinking it looked easy, he mocked the King. Dionysius wisely offered to switch places with Damocles so he could get a taste of working on the throne. On seating himeself and beginning to enjoy the glamour of the court, Damocles looked up and noticed a huge sword dangling above his head, tenuously suspended by a single horse hair. The implication being that any wrong decision could result in his death. (See

This story does not exactly equate the sword of Damocles with a double-edged sword, but it might have. It certainly demonstrates that a situation or course of action, sometimes even inaction, can have both positive and negative effects. It also suggests that we need to be careful what we wish for, because once we have it, there may be unforeseen and negative consequences.

4C, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Paradoxes abound

The Wikipedia list of paradoxes is long, and examples range across many fields, including logic, mathematics, decision theory, physics, economics, politics, and psychology (among others). The Wiki entry notes that the term ‘paradox’ is sometimes associated with false reasoning, or an unintuitive solution, as well as apparently contradictory results where accepted ways of reasoning have been applied.

There is a sub-category of paradoxes related to images. Examples include the impossible cube (above), the Penrose Triangle, and the Reutersvard triangle (below) which depend on the use of 2D elements and tricks or devices to imply the existence of illogical 3D forms. But not all paradoxes involve tricks.

A situational paradox is one involving two or more facts or qualities that seem to contradict each other.

A logical or rhetorical paradox is a statement in which it seems that if one part is true, the other part cannot be true. The Liar Paradox (‘This statement is false’ ) is perhaps the best example of this. Other paradoxical comments or quotes we occasionally hear in conversation include:

  • If I know one thing, it’s that I know nothing
  • Here are the rules: Ignore all rules
  • Ignorance is bliss
  • Every failure contains a hidden success

A selection of paradoxes involving choice is described in the chart which follows:

‘Both/and’ thinking

The double-edged sword is not quite the same thing as a paradoxical choice. According to James Collins and Jerry Porras (Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Harper Collins, 2004), successful companies avoid falling into a pattern of conflict between valuing individuals versus community in which parties become increasingly polarized around ‘either/or’ choices. Instead, successful organisations cycle through acknowledgment of the validity of both values rather than treating them as right versus wrong options. This is sometimes described as ‘both/and’ thinking.

Collins had previously featured an organisational taxonomy based on the combined values of discipline and creativity in his best-selling book Good to Great. His taxonomy identified four types of organizations:

  • Those with both high ‘culture of discipline’ (organizational values that foster and focus on discipline) and creativity, and thus achieve ‘greatness’;
  • those with high creativity but low discipline (startups);
  • those with both low creativity and discipline (bureaucracies) and
  • those with low creativity but high discipline (hierarchies).

Wendy Smith and Marianne Lewis are the authors of Both/and Thinking: embracing creative tensions to solve your toughest problems. Their writing illustrates numerous paradoxes and tensions faced by directors and managers and suggests that ‘Both/and’ thinking can help you to manage those tensions rather than allowing one aspect of a polarity to dominate at the expense of the other. The chart below illustrates a selection of these polarities, some of which can be seen as interdependencies (e.g. means and ends). Their book and other writings are highly recommended.

Barry Johnson, the author of Polarity Management, invites us to imagine the effect of treating breathing (inhaling and exhaling) as a conflict, in which one side ‘wins’ at the expense of the other. This approach highlights “universal interdependent values, competencies and strategic objectives that individuals, teams and organizations must leverage to achieve and sustain success”.

Johnson describes a simple yet powerful approach to attaining this leverage. His method involves charting both the upside and downside of each of the opposing values. This allows people to see and feel the need for movement between the values, determine the direction of movement currently needed, and establish how they will recognize the need to change emphasis.

56 ice cream flavours

Another kind of choice paradox involves having too many options. The Decision Lab tells us:

“The paradox of choice stipulates that while we might believe that being presented with multiple options actually makes it easier to choose one that we are happy with, and thus increases consumer satisfaction, having an abundance of options actually requires more effort to make a decision and can leave us feeling unsatisfied with our choice.”

‘Less is more’ is another way we refer to the paradox of choice – where choosing between a limited set of options is more efficient and effective than having a wealth of options to choose from. A surfeit of choices (like 56 ice cream flavours) can lead to decision paralysis.

Contrast, conflict, and ‘creative tension’

Choices between control and innovation goals are often characterised as ‘either/or’ choices.

You can have:

  • great control systems which ensure consistency in policy and procedures (quality assurance), or
  • you can have perpetual change, in which chaos reigns as the creatives keep introducing new initiatives and programs.

Choose a side:

  • “our ideals are derived from a past golden era (conservative values)”, or
  • “we aspire to a future vision of improved circumstances (progressive values)”

Balancing the board’s responsibility for both conformance and performance involves a recognition that these obligations are not so much contradictory as they are complimentary. Neglecting either would be detrimental to the health of the organisation. Keeping them in creative tension is not having an ‘each way bet’, but rather attending to the equal importance of both.

Using both ‘Either/or’ and ‘Both/and’ approaches

‘Either/or’ choices may be appropriate when:

  • there are only two options
  • time pressures limit the opportunity to analyse options
  • they limit the perceived options and favor sticking with the status quo
  • no viable options seem readily available or obvious

‘Both/and’ choices will be appropriate when:

  • what appear to be opposing elements are actually interdependent (e.g. core business and innovation, cost and quality, team and individual, competing and collaborating, activity and rest)
  • faced with two or more options, each containing useful elements
  • when assumptions about practicality are able to be challenged
  • where a win:win outcome is able to focus on one or more common goals

See also:

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