” Jeremy, you focus a lot on dilemmas and doubt. And I agree with you that seeing these patterns is useful. Still, our clients are looking for solutions. Sure, I can show them their problems in more detail, but they ‘ ll hire me only if I can show them how to solve them. Do you have any suggestions for that part of the work? ”

There are two parts to any solution — what to do, and what not to do. An example will illustrate: I want to lose weight, so I decide to exercise. I go to the sporting goods superstore, and a salesperson tells me the solution is a recumbent bike, so I buy one and work out every day. After each workout, I have a big, rewarding snack. It’s a mystery to me why I don’t lose weight.

I go back to the store, and another salesperson tells me recumbent bikes are not as good a weight-loss solution as rowing machines. So I trade in the recumbent (amazing 30-day money-back guarantee!), I use the rower religiously, and of course I continue to use my pantry religiously, too, for that big, rewarding snack after every workout. I still don’t lose weight, so I go back to the sporting goods store, where a different salesperson tells me that, really, rowing machines don’t burn as many calories as running machines, so I buy the running machine.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


You get the picture. But only when I get the picture — only when I see myself bouncing back and forth between bingeing and burning — will I notice that my solution depends less on what new things I start doing and more on what old things I stop doing. Only when my access to those rewarding snacks makes it to the top of my to-don’t list will I lose weight.

Sometimes, finding the solution isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s removing the enticements that keep us from fully implementing the solution.

The solution to most business and personal problems comes from applying common sense, that phenomenal natural human capacity to weigh options on a range of relevant dimensions. Given a chance, people successfully weigh pros against cons, short term against long, intuitive against conscious, tangible against intangible, moral against self-serving, risk against opportunity.

The problem is, too often, we don’t give ourselves half a chance to apply common sense. It is a rare management failure that results from the lack of easy access to good judgment. Most are the product of even easier access to distractions, shunts, bypasses that enable us to escape good judgment before it gets a chance to work. We each maintain a repertoire of distractions that halt thinking, keeping them as close to hand as my snack foods. We may start down the road to reason, but these ever-handy distractions lure us off track.

We’ve discussed many of these thought stoppers before. Here’s a quick tour of four, followed by some ideas about what you can offer clients who really want to move the decision distractions to the top of their to-don’t lists.

1. False Dichotomies

“I’m not pigheaded; I’m steadfast.” “I’m not egotistical; I’m self-confident.” “You’re inflexible; I’m dedicated.”

We generally think of identifying false dichotomies as a good way to end unproductive debate and deliberation. For example, if you’re stressing about whether you are a genius or a fool, a friend might say, “That’s a false dichotomy. You’re a human, like the rest of us, which means you’re part genius, part fool,” and she would be right. Still, sometimes we use false dichotomies with the reverse effect. We can escape productive deliberation by creating a false distinction. We do this by picking two words, one positive and the other negative, that describe the same behavior.

For example, is it OK to push clients? That’s a tough, context-dependent decision. It depends on the situation and the client. (See Fishing Line) But you can escape that tough call by evoking a false dichotomy: “Well, I think it’s the difference between goading and coaxing a client. It’s good to coax, but you should never goad.” Drawing such a distinction can deepen deliberation if it leads to a debate about what really is the difference between goading and coaxing. More often than not, however, such distinctions are treated as answers, not questions — as thought stoppers, not thought starters.

Often, one can distinguish the two terms only by their consequences. Goading is when the client ends up firing you; coaxing is when the client ends up changing and thanking your for the feedback. A distinction that can be made only in hindsight doesn’t inform foresight. The point of deliberation is making a prediction in advance of outcomes. Such false dichotomies stop thought with an argument that amounts to no more than, “Well, rather than thinking about what to do, let’s pretend we already know and hope for the best.” Indeed, false dichotomies used this way generally drive deliberation into counterproductive ruts — for example, with parties in favor of pushing the client calling it coaxing and parties against doing so calling it goading without ever really defining what distinguishes the two terms.

Inoculant: “Beware of the good-cop-bad-cop-out.” (In good-cop, bad-cop interrogations, the two cops seem like opposites but are really the same. In the same way, false dichotomies represented by terms such as “goad” and “coax” seem distinct but are in fact identical.)

2. One-Side Stories

“No, this has got to be a team effort. After all, you can’t make honey with just one bee.”

One carefully selected story, anecdote, or analogy can free you from productive commonsense deliberation. Bees make honey in groups; therefore, it’s implied that everything should be made in groups. Stated bluntly, such reasoning is unworkable bunkum. It ignores the extent to which a particular team-versus-solo decision under consideration is like or unlike bees making honey. But we’re easily lulled by such debate-dulling notions. “We should do x, because my cousin did x, and it worked” likewise leaves a gaping logical hole: In what ways was your cousin’s situation like your current one? Similarly, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” draws a dubious analogy, implying that everything that gets worse is about to get better.

Of course, that’s absurd, but you’ll often find people drugging themselves with such doubt enders. Why? Stories are vivid. Pit a story against a theory and people will pick the story any day, especially one that implies a simple solution. Business and self-help books are full of one-side stories, examples in which people succeed by following — and fail by not following — a given book’s simple prescription. Psychologists call it affirmation bias, the natural tendency to seek evidence that affirms our beliefs and ignore evidence that disaffirms
them.

Inoculant: Counter every analogy or story with an equal and opposite analogy or story. When someone says, “It’s always darkest before dawn,” say, “That is absolutely half-true, and you don’t want to flog a dead horse, either.” When someone says, “You can’t make honey with just one bee,” say, “That’s absolutely half-true, and too many cooks spoil the broth.”

3. One-truesations

“Oh, you’re just raising these questions to get attention (to cause trouble, to give me a hard time, etc.).”

We can pretty reliably kill thoughtful conversation with an accusation that the one true motive for having the conversation is a bad one. As long as there’s even a little potential that a bad motive even partially inspired the conversation, you can often shut people up by accusing them of being driven solely by that motive. We can even shut ourselves up by raising such doubts: “I keep wondering whether I should continue to work with that company, but that’s just me being paranoid, isn’t it? Why do I doubt everyone so much? I’m so distrustful. Of course I should keep working with them.”

The operative word is “just,” a term designed to bar any consideration of other complicating factors. To say someone is “just” trying to get attention is to say that getting attention is the only possible motive; it’s the equivalent of instructions to ignore any other possible motives. But we rarely do anything for just one reason, and, typically, the swarm of reasons that motivate a choice we make is likely to include both good and bad motives. If people avoided all activities potentially contaminated by a bad motivation, people wouldn’t know what to do with themselves.

Inoculant: When someone shoots a one-trusation at you, remember, we never do anything for just one reason. One bad motive doesn’t spoil the whole effort.

4. Doctrine of Foregone Inconclusion

“Whatever. It’s all good. There’s no knowing; people who think they can figure it out are just deluding themselves.”

All our decisions are fallible bets made in the face of uncertainty. The risk of betting wrong can make us extremely nervous. To be brave enough to bet at all, it’s important to make friends with uncertainty. But get too friendly with it, and you build yourself an escape hatch, a grand and highly abstract antitheory theory you can use to pretend that no amount of deliberation can help you make better decisions. The doctrine of foregone inconclusion is based on a logical fallacy, an assumption that because all predictions might prove wrong, all are equally likely to prove wrong.

For example, consider the Buddhist paradox that one should commit oneself to non-attatchment, in other words cling to non-clinging, a paradox that resolves itself only when one uplevels into the recognition that it’s good to cling to some things and bad to cling to others. Rather than admit there’s no simple formula such as “Always cling” or “Never cling,” some people say, “Ah, but don’t you see? The paradox proves the mystery of it all. It proves that the mind is a trap and that you must enter a state where clinging and nonclinging are not real. They’re just thoughts.”

Inoculant: Though you never can tell, you will die trying.These days, management consulting clients are overwhelmed. Just managing everyday pressures is too much work. They’re downright relieved when you help them take something off their to-do lists. It’s a great time to be promoting to-don’ts, especially because moving to-don’ts up a client’s short list is the real solution to the client’s problems. Still, clients are wary of solutions that don’t feel like solutions, that don’t look as promising as shiny, new and improved exercise equipment. So, really, how do you promote to-don’ts? How do you get people to increase their intolerance of common sense preempting non-sense? Here are a few tips:

  • Make the dilemmas more manageable: The reason people want to escape decision making and doubt is that it’s so disorienting. Give them a map to their dilemma terrain. Teach them to be better at dilemma-pattern recognition, and they won’t be so disoriented
  • Make the dilemmas more engaging than the escapes: Dilemmas can be fun if you’re not tortured by the sense that you’re stuck with them because you’re a bad or dumb person. Dilemmas can be pretty when you see them as life’s fundamental challenges playing out over and over.
  • Embarass the escapees, not the deliberators: Spread the buzzwords and catchphrases that make escapism more embarrassing than deliberation. Name and tame the many insidious escape maneuvers. Design your own inoculants; create a corporate culture that keeps thought at the top of its to-do list, and thought stoppers at the top of its to-don’t list.

Absolutely half-true

The take-away from this piece is that it’s good to think more thoroughly; bad to escape thinking. Anyone who has been reading these pieces for a while should recognize that this too is a half-truth. One can think too much. Essays that courter-balance this one include Spin Doctor’s Hippocratic Oath, and The Pot Calling The Kettle Capped. May all of your innoculants work well but not too well. May your innoculants counter-balance each other the way my pantry continues to counter-balance my exercise equipment.