Dismantling the Myth of Binary Management

Posted on November 28, 2021 | Author: Doug Phares

Win or lose, black or white, on or off: Whatever the metric, a lot of management advice is wrapped up in binary thinking. We’ve all read the advice books and viral LinkedIn posts about the secret to winning, how to beat the competition, and other buzzy phrases that tell us that if we’re not winning, we’re losing.

Now, I don’t hate that idea. Personally, I’d love to live in a world where I can choose between Option A or Option B and, when I pick right, always end up in the winner’s seat. But that has never been how business works.

Instead, managing is a constant juggling act, where you’re trying to get your organization, your team, and yourself to the place you want them to be. And as you work on getting to that place, you’ll often find that that goal you’ve been working toward isn’t actually what you want. Situations change, goals shift, and suddenly the goalpost isn’t anywhere near where you expected.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should never set any goals or target certain metrics. They’re great tools for measuring what does and doesn’t work in your favor. But it’s December, and I’d bet when checking end-of-the-year numbers, the situation is substantially more complicated than “we won” or “we lost.”

While it’s easy to think in simple, binary terms, any executive knows that that isn’t how it really works. The things that come across your desk—concepts to consider, targets to set, projects to green light—are all about judgements. And judgement requires seeking out input, allocating resources to your team, and evaluating the risks and rewards of a potential next step.

All of which is to say, while there’s temptation to define success as “making X thing happen,” because that’s how we think success is measured and accomplished. But I’d suggest that, especially in external communications, we work with a vocabulary that allows for more shades of grey. Whether that’s talking to the public, shareholders, or your team members, it’s important to not treat one metric as the end-all-be-all. As tennis player Arthur Ashe famously said, success is a journey, not a destination.

To step outside of my comfort zone and make a foray into the world of sports analogies, consider it like a game of football. Teams don’t win by scoring a touchdown with every throw—they win by gaining yards and stacking up the little successes until you’ve got points on the board, then doing it all over again. No coach starts a game by telling the players, “If we score 17 points, we win.” The path to success is ongoing, and it’s about a process rather than a singular goal.

So as you’re looking over your data at the end of the year, you’re probably noticing trajectories of the last year that did and/or didn’t help your business. I suggest giving yourself and your team the latitude of considering your progress directionally. Did you get the first down? Move toward a touchdown? If you can see that you’re moving in the right direction, then don’t throw everything aside because you didn’t “win” in the way you’d hoped.

As we think in terms of trajectories, it’s an opportunity to look toward the future. What path do you want to build on, and what do you need to see even more progress next year? If you didn’t hit your big picture goals this year, take a closer look at things that gained ground, even if they weren’t quite enough. Can you reinforce those areas with extra resources?

Conversely, there are probably areas where you invested some time or money that just didn’t move you in the direction you want to go. What happens if you allocate those resources into an area that made some forward ground this past year? Reinforce the efforts that are working and kill off some that aren’t. Don’t get stuck in the invested-capital fallacy. Some things just don’t work.

A win is never going to be the big, game-changing win. And a loss isn’t always a lost cause. Humans don’t exist in binary terms like that, and a little-known insider tidbit is that our customers, our teams, and ourselves are all human. So instead of focusing on binary winning or losing as you close out the year, devote yourself to identifying what worked in 2021, even in little ways, and find new opportunities in 2022 to grow that little victory into a larger success.


In this column, I recommend books I’ve read that have enriched or altered my view of that world. So I’m closing out my column for the year by encouraging everyone to pick up Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. Not only is she an experienced journalist and a uniquely talented writer, but as a manager, I think there’s a lot to be gained by better understanding the ways in which the world around us helps and hinders the people we manage and work with. This isn’t a column for politics or social issues, but there is a real experiential value add in being able to better understand the world in which you live and work.

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