Moving From Either/Or to Both/And Thinking

Roger Schwarz

Try this quick experiment. Place your hand above your head as if you’re going to trace a circle on the ceiling with your index finger. Now, trace an imaginary circle in a clockwise direction. While continuing to trace the circle, slowly lower your arm so that your finger comes down to your eye level. Keep on lowering your arm until your finger is at your waist level. Now look down at the circle you’re tracing. What’s the direction? Counter-clockwise!

How can that be? The answer lies in one word: perspective. You continued to trace the circle in the same direction, but your perspective on the situation changed when you shifted from looking up to looking down at the circle.

What does this have to do with your leadership team? Team members often have different perspectives on the same situation. That’s natural because team members occupy different roles and therefore have access to different experiences and information. There’s a saying, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” How we see things depends on the vantage point we’re looking from.

Unfortunately, when it’s time to make decisions, teams often have a hard time integrating different and seemingly opposite perspectives. They get stuck in either/or discussions. In an either/or discussion when people see things differently from you, you assume that either you’re right or they’re right, but you can’t both be right. So, everyone argues as hard as they can so their view will prevail. As a result, teams make decisions that ignore part some of their information or perspective. Because the decisions don’t reflect the complexity of the situation they’re trying to address, implementation suffers.

But as this simple experiment shows, saying that the circle is either moving clockwise or counterclockwise doesn’t represent the full situation. Teams that want to make good decisions move beyond taking one perspective. They apply both/and thinking. They ask the question “How do we make sense out of multiple perspectives that seem at odds with each other?” They figure out how people who have seemingly opposite facts both have valid information. By digging deeper to make sense out of what seems at odds, teams do the hard and work of problem solving.

Next time your team is thinking that only one perspective can be valid, remember that imaginary circle you drew.

Originally published March 2012

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