27 September 2023

Losing at two-up: How a third way can often be the best way

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May Busch* says either-or decisions often have to be made in the course of life and work, but fussing with the dilemma can often obscure another way of doing things.

Do you ever struggle with either-or decisions?

I’m talking about anything from “should I order a chocolate cake or chocolate mousse for dessert?” to “should I stay in my current role or risk making a change?”

These decisions are difficult to make because they’re dilemmas.

Whether you like both options or find neither one attractive, it’s hard to know if you’re making the right choice.

When you only have one option, it’s simply an option. Two options make a dilemma. Three options present a real choice.

So, whenever I’m facing an either-or, I always challenge myself to find what I call the Third Way. Here are five ways to find it.

Say “Yes” to Both: This method works well when there are two good choices, like in the chocolate mousse versus chocolate cake decision.

Or maybe: “Should I buy a gym membership, or take yoga classes?”

Sometimes you can say “yes” to both and it works out well. Don’t assume you must choose only one option.

Choose the Best of Both: This works well when you’re faced with two different choices.

This was the case for A.G. Lafley when he took over as Chief Executive of Procter and Gamble in 2000.

The company wasn’t doing well and one set of managers advocated for cutting costs to compete with the supermarket brands.

The other set believed strongly that the solution was to innovate and go high-end.

What Mr Lafley did was to choose the best of both.

He cut costs in some areas and innovated and went upscale in other areas. That was the beginning of the company’s recovery.

Turn Things on Their Head: This concept is about taking the opposite perspective, turning the tables and flipping things the other way around.

It works especially well when you feel powerless to change things.

When my husband and I were looking to buy a house, we would look at properties for sale, choose one we both liked and then decide whether to make an offer on it.

Once we made the offer, it was then about waiting to hear.

This sequential strategy wasn’t working very well because we kept getting out-bid by other home buyers.

It was pretty demoralising because with full-time jobs, a baby on the way and not enough room in our existing place, it was stressful and time consuming.

It got to the point where we were so furious that we decided to get creative.

Instead of making one bid at a time and treating the houses as the precious resource, it dawned on us that we ought to be bidding ourselves out as the hot commodity.

So we turned the situation on its head and put bids out for four different houses at the same time.

Then we informed the realtors that whoever hit our bid first would get us as buyers.

We ended up getting a house quickly after switching our strategy.

Challenge Your Assumptions:

This method is useful when you feel really sure that you know why something can or cannot work, or what boundaries exist.

For example, you might hold certain beliefs, like: “There’s no way our boss is going to approve this expenditure” or “there’s no way we could get this done in time”.

While your assertions may very well be backed up by previous evidence, you could be closing off avenues for finding a better solution.

Whenever you’re so sure about your assumptions that you take them as given, it’s time to ask questions like: “What if we could do ‘X’?”

Or: “What would need to be true for ‘Y’ to happen?”

Challenging your assumptions opens up all kinds of possibilities.

Recently, my team and I had a big project to do. The work was taking longer than expected, and we braced ourselves to spend all-nighters to make our deadline.

“There’s no other way”, we thought.

That’s when we started challenging our assumptions.

“Why is it that we have to spend all-nighters? Are we the only ones who can complete these tasks?”

That’s when we had the brain flash of outsourcing some of the work to a temporary agency.

It did a brilliant job, saved us hours and hours of time and nobody had to pull any all-nighters.

Focus on Common Goals:

This approach applies when there are two parties involved in the decision who have different viewpoints of what should be done.

A colleague and I were once both product managers who worked with the same set of corporate clients but for our own respective products.

While we had our individual objectives, we were also expected to work closely together.

When we put forward our strategies at the start of the year, our approaches were at odds with each other.

We had each proposed a plan that would favour our own product areas. No surprise.

Then we realised that we could win even bigger if we joined forces.

We went back to first principles and looked for a common goal that both our teams shared.

This was to do more business for the firm through the way we served these corporate clients.

We built a third strategy, where each of us could hit our minimum targets and then grow the size of the pie for the entire organisation.

This turned out to be a win-win for both our teams, and my colleague and I got kudos from senior management at the end of the year.

The next time you’re faced with an either-or dilemma, I invite you to search for your Third Way.

*May Busch helps leaders and their organisations achieve their full potential. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared on May’s blogsite

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