“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
~F. Scott Fitzgerald

In Built to Last, a book by James Collins and Scott Porras that explores trends of business approaches and strategies that have been historically undertaken by eighteen “highly visionary companies,” the authors contend that one particularly detrimental tactic is undertaking a “black and white,” “either/or” method to decision-making situations that they dub, “the Tyranny of the OR.”

The “Tyranny of the OR” is a restrictive approach to decision-making that dictates a solitary choice between one of two seemingly contradictory strategies or outcomes — facilitating the necessary exclusion of the other. While frequently embraced by even billion-dollar corporations, this confining, restrictive approach is a tyrannical method of decision-making that can be avoided by individuals and companies alike.

While Collins’ and Porras’ book examines trends of “visionary” American companies, or the “truly exceptional and long-lasting companies [that] have an average age of nearly 100 years and have outperformed the general stock market by a factor of fifteen since 1926,” the authors’ advice about embracing an approach of strategic inclusion — even in common decision-making situations in everyday life — can greatly benefit visionary individuals, especially in the pursuit of their dreams and goals.

“The Tyranny of the OR”

Making decisions by way of “the Tyranny of the OR” — a lens through which decisions are made between seemingly contradictory choices —  is both simplistic and constrictive. Collins and Porras define “the Tyranny of the OR” as:

“…the rational view that cannot easily accept paradox, that cannot live with two seemingly contradictory forces or ideas at the same time… [it] pushes people to believe things must be either A OR B, but not both.”

The authors offer some common business decisions as examples of decisions that require seemingly contradictory strategies and subsequent outcomes:

  • “You can either have change OR stability.”
  • “You can either be conservative OR bold.”
  • “You can either have low cost OR high quality.”
  • “You can either invest for the future OR do well in the short-term.”

On the individual level, let’s consider some examples of seemingly contradictory strategies and subsequent outcomes in the pursuit of dreams and life goals:

  • “You can either invest in the long term OR fulfill short term needs.”
  • “You can either stay conservative OR be risky.”
  • “You can either be progressive OR reactionary.”
  • “You can either be steadfast OR lack proper determination.”

“The Genius of the AND”

Collins and Porras argue that “The Tyranny of the OR” is disregarded by highly visionary individuals and companies alike, who instead embrace a multi-dimensional and liberating strategy that pursues seemingly contradictory ideals. This process is dubbed by the authors as “the Genius of the AND.”

As with business, the most effective and well-maintained results that come from the pursuit of dreams is to establish an inclusive, balanced, visionary outlook that looks to bridge the gap between seemingly contradictory outcomes. I recently wrote a piece entitled, For Dreamers to Circle the Wagons, which touched upon the method of rectifying seeming contradictions in the pursuit of goals and dreams:

“On the surface, this dilemma would seem to be represented by the stark differences between ‘perseverance’ and ‘feebleness,’ or ‘stubbornness’ and ‘flexibility.’ Upon closer examination, however, the scenario is hardly so black-and-white.

“The pursuit of distant but passion-driven goals will likely never be achieved if done in a blind pursuit, willfully unaware of criticism and disagreements in opinion and with the ignorant assumption that were it only for longevity and endurance that the goal will be realized. To the contrary, often times we dream-pursuers must pause and circle the wagons.”

As with developing a “highly visionary” business strategy, the pursuit of dreams often beckons that one find a creative, inclusive third option when faced with the dilemma of a stark “either/or” situation.

The “Genius of the AND” is often embodied in other realms outside of business, too. Judge Kevin S. Burke of the Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis brought the familiar business principal into his courtroom, arguing that judges who make decisions by way of “the Tyranny of the OR” is a threat to judicial independence.  In 2004, Burke wrote in Court Review: Volume 41, Issue 2 that he believes “the Tyranny of the OR” tends to be an approach taken up by some judges, which “limits the possibility of problem-solving.”

Striving to become “Highly Visionary”

The “Tyranny of the OR,” a highly restrictive approach to decision-making, dictates that only one of two seemingly contradictory outcomes must be logically pursued. But in business, the courtroom, and in the pursuit of dreams and life goals, a dualistic and inclusive third option is ever present. When the habit of making “either/or” decisions instills the unhealthy trend of thinking in terms of “black-and-white” exclusivity, we begin to see the world and important decisions that we must make every day through a tyrannical lens that will inhibit vision, hamper progress, and forever prevent the advancement of one’s, as Fitzgerald says, “first-rate intelligence.”

Judge Kevin S. Burke, who integrated the familiar business principal into the courtroom, arguing that the “Tyranny of the OR” is a threat to judicial independence. The author believes that the concept of Tyranny of the OR tends to be an approach taken up by some judges, which “limits the possibility of problem-solving.”