The dangers of the exclusive “or”

Reading Time: 8 minutes

In this series, I’m exploring the influence of white supremacy culture on tech (and broadly, professional) culture, following Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun’s list of characteristics as a guide. Here’s the introduction and the full series so far.

Let’s talk about the eighth element of white supremacy culture: either/or thinking.

Here’s the description of either/or thinking, verbatim:

  • Things are either/or — good/bad, right/wrong, with us/against us
  • Closely linked to perfectionism in making it difficult to learn from mistakes or accommodate conflict
  • No sense that things can be both/and
  • Results in trying to simplify complex things, for example believing that poverty is simply a result of lack of education
  • Creates conflict and increases sense of urgency, as people feel they have to make decisions to do either this or that, with no time or encouragement to consider alternatives, particularly those which may require more time or resources
  • Often used by those with a clear agenda or goal to push those who are still thinking or reflecting to make a choice between ‘a’ or ‘b’ without acknowledging a need for time and creativity to come up with more options

Allow me to start with the objection here:

As a programmer, sometimes ya gotta make a choice.

Either we name the variable reallyLongNameWithZeroChanceOfMisinterpretation, or we name it s. Either we entrust our deployment to this morally reprehensible cloud provider, or that one. (Or maybe that one).

But I have been a programmer for a minute. As I have increased in seniority, my critical skill development has revolved around postponing, avoiding, and eliminating either/or decisions. By casting decisions as either/or, we miss out on some of the best solutions.

I’ll share some examples below. We end up addressing several of Jones and Okun’s antidotes in the process, so I’ll first list them here:

  • notice when people use ‘either/or’ language and push to come up with more than two alternatives
  • notice when people are simplifying complex issues, particularly when the stakes seem high or an urgent decision needs to be made
  • Slow it down and encourage people to do a deeper analysis;
  • When people are faced with an urgent decision, take a break and give people some breathing room to think creatively
  • Avoid making decisions under extreme pressure

Okay, onward, to ways that we allow either/or thinking to screw us up:

1. We spring for compromise and miss out on compounding.

It’s easy for us to assume, when presented with a decision, that it’s mutually exclusive: we have to choose one or the other, not both. We assume this zero-sum game where more of one thing must mean less of the other thing. Sometimes that’s true. Often it’s not.

Allow me to provide an example from my career trajectory: I went from a full-time job into independent consulting for multiple clients. I think many full-time jobs encourage people to falsely categorize things as either-or decisions to protect their exclusive access to someone’s talent. I also think they’re wrong in their assumption that exclusive access is good for them. I get teased by my polyamorous but full-time-employed friends for turning the tables: dating monogamously and taking multiple clients. I promise, I’m going somewhere with this.

I maintain an open source mobile app for one of my clients. I teach a mobile software development course for another of my clients. The first client benefits from getting open source contributors, and the second benefits when students get interesting experience with production software. I can help with both of those things by empowering my students to contribute to the open source mobile application. The situation exemplifies the benefit of compounding: two things being worth more together than their sum when they’re apart.

I think teams that are choosing between options can benefit from stopping to ask:

  1. What limiting ingredient forces us to choose just one of these options? Is that a real boundary, or could we somehow try both of these?
  2. How might each of these options benefit the other ones if we chose them together?
  3. Are these two options the only ones, or are there, in fact, more than two?

2. We think of a postponement as a liability rather than an asset.

Earlier in the white supremacy culture series, we talked about the cost of yielding to a sense of urgency. Often with either/or choices, teams feel pressure to decide now on something they’ll execute later. Delaying the choice creates anxiety: it feels detrimental. But it can end up resulting in sounder decisions, as we’ve discussed before:

Agile methodologies encourage engineers to begin implementing against a small list of requirements and course-correct as they learn more. They leave decisions to the last responsible moment, when they have the most information to make the right choice. This methodology has characterized most of my software engineering career.

From Lessons from Space: Requirement Gathering

We associate negative stigmata with refusing to choose: we think of people as flaky, or we discount their perspective because they “can’t make up their mind.” Meanwhile, waiting on a decision may allow us to collect more data to inform that decision. Or maybe we can move forward with multiple different options and commit to comparing our experiences with them later, so our choice has a stronger basis than speculation alone.

3. We miss possible solutions when we simplify the list of causes.

This is a weird one for me to talk about because I believe most decisions do have one driving reason. I also happen to think that that reason is often fundamentally emotional for the final decision-maker, and because we consider it unprofessional to talk about feelings, we end up with poor visibility into the honest reasons why decisions get made.

However, even if that’s true (which I don’t know for sure), it’s not mutually exclusive with situations ultimately having multiple causes, and when we stop after identifying one driver, we cut ourselves off from opportunities to consider whole collections of solutions that might work.

I’ll provide an example situation here: the homogeneity of the tech industry. People have known about this, and complained about this, for like 25 years. Google itself, by the way, is younger than that. So clearly we have had plenty of time to massively change the industry with respect to diversity. We haven’t. Why not?

Well, there are a lot of reasons. Here’s maybe the biggest one: the cognitive dissonance that powerful people use to support a cause in theory riiight up until making a material contribution to that cause would be inconvenient for them. But that’s not the only reason.

There are more reasons, like the fact that Americans grow up in a patriarchal, heteronormative, white supremacist, end-stage capitalist culture, and at no point do we systematically educate away from that. But also, because recruiters assume that lack of applications means lack of applicants, which is false. But also, because people shut down when they interpret bias education as an accusation (which is, by the way, why this approach is gaining popularity). Part of the reason our industry is so radically different now than it was in the nineties, but on the topic of diversity is so exhaustingly unchanged, is that tech companies try to choose, from lots of causes and solutions, the one thing that they’re going to do that fixes this (or at least absolves them of responsibility for fixing it), and it doesn’t work that way. Does Google’s search result use only one algorithm? Hell no. It’s absurd to expect complex issues to respond to single solutions.

When we look for alternatives to mutually exclusive choices, we get a lot more options.

There’s power in options. We feel less pressure—less urgency, less hopelessness—when we see a larger number of paths to what we want. So false dichotomies give us this illusion of control over our futures, but taking time to generate additional options gives us more actual control. It also gives us a more complete picture of our opportunity cost when we do make a choice, so we’re not left later looking at a competitor and thinking “Now, why didn’t we think of that?”

If you liked this piece, you might also like:

The techtivism series, about how to effect your values as a tech producer and consumer

The inclusion tag, which I reluctantly included on this site after like a million requests

Verifying complex data models with Alloytotally unrelated but I am proud of this one

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