The Genius and Tyranny of Decision-Making

by: Stratford Managers

Jim Collins introduced the concept of “the Genius of the AND” to millions of managers in his book Built to Last – Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.  In so doing he inspired visionary leaders but also created a bolt-hole for vacillating senior executives everywhere.

In the book, James Collins and Scott Porras explore business approaches and strategies undertaken by eighteen “highly visionary companies”. The authors ask what makes truly exceptional companies different and what common practices are followed throughout their history. Among other things, they identified one tactic that interferes with companies (and individuals) achieving greatness:  adopting 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 two seemingly contradictory strategies or outcomes. Choosing one requires the exclusion of the other. But as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “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.” Collins and Porras observe that embracing a more expansive approach of strategic inclusion, what they call “the genius of the AND”, sustains visionary companies and individuals in the pursuit of their lofty goals in the face of everyday adversity.

The Genius of the AND?

Collins’ intent was to communicate that companies must build and preserve a passionately held core ideology AND simultaneously stimulate progress in everything else.  A truly visionary company embraces both ends of a continuum: continuity and change, conservatism and progressiveness, stability and revolution, predictability and chaos, heritage and renewal, fundamentals and craziness. This duality is inspiring because it implies that everything is possible if you want it badly enough and are prepared to work hard enough. But is that really, always true?

Unintentionally, Collins has created a generation of inspired, visionary managers who have lost the art of making decisions. By giving managers an excuse to abdicate their responsibility for making hard choices, too many organizations have been subjected to an impossible and intolerable situation in which resources are misallocated and core missions remain unachieved.  The magic words “the genius of the AND” intoned by a leader are somehow supposed to inspire employees to do the impossible. Sometimes you really do need to make a choice.

Leadership Through Decision-Making

It is important to relentlessly maximize opportunity. To think creatively and push hard to do more with less. But resources are finite and sometimes trade-offs must be made.  Peter F. Drucker observed wryly, “So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work”.  Your staff expects tough decisions to be made on the allocation of precious resources so they can get on with doing their jobs.

So if you don’t have the guts to choose, please don’t blame Jim Collins. Make a decision, dammit!  Your organization will thank-you.

* For a classic primer on executive decision-making read the 1967 HBR article, The Effective Decision, by Peter Drucker.

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