Binary Is Bad

“Only the madman is absolutely sure.”  ― Robert Anton WilsonMasks of the Illuminati

Nothing in this world is completely black or white, good or bad.  The human brain likes to categorize things.  Put things in neat little buckets, so it can think of groups of things, and assume all things in that bucket have certain attributes. When that happens during a decision-making process, though, you’re throwing away information before assessing its value.  As soon as you feel you’ve categorized it you let go of the information that went into that categorization.  Incomplete information is the enemy of sound decision-making.  Sometimes you need to make snap judgements when timing is of the essence, but even then it should be a first approximation, to be re-evaluated later.


In the business world, almost every decision is a compromise, and when you’re lucky, an optimization.  Neither are possible if you see everything as “all or nothing”.  For instance, it’s easy to think that borrowing money is bad if you don’t really need the money right now, because of the interest payments and opportunity costs.  But what if you could keep your operations going during lean times with that money?  What if you were able to buy more of a resource at a time for a lower per unit price with that money?  Then borrowing money can pay off in the long run.

This same principle holds true at the individual level.  I had a conversation recently with a woman I was trying to work together with on a goal.  She used “I can’t…” as a retort to every attempt at a path forward.  I explained that when you start from “I can’t”, there’s nowhere to go; no room for progress, or at least change.  If you start with “It’s really hard for me to…”, now you’ve accepted that it’s not impossible, and progress is possible.  Let’s find ways of making it easier, or your ability to work towards that goal greater.   And we did.

As an active participant in the Agile community, I often hear very hard-line stances, like “You’re not doing Scrum if you don’t follow these principles to the letter”.  Such black and white thinking ignores the fact that every company is a bit different, and it’s perfectly functional to drop some practices and add others, as you might substitute ingredients in a recipe (but you better understand the ingredients well before doing it).  It’s this kind of “check-mark thinking” that widens the gap between companies “doing Agile” and companies being agile.  Continuous improvement is not possible if there is only one acceptable state.


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