Beware of false equivalence

Check the quality of the fruit

When you are buying a banana at the grocery store, do you blindly pick up anything? No way. A green banana and yellow banana means something completely different. Depending on your taste preference, when you plan to eat it, and you want to use it, green/yellow/brown bananas are not the same thing. Okay, duh. . .

Well, if we are so potentially discerning (dare I say picky) with fruit, how picky are we with information we use?

Check the quality of the information

There has been a Cambrian explosion of “news” over the last 20 years. When I was growing up, there was a dozen official news sources (newspapers, radio, television) . Editorially, there was an effort to target the middle 80% of people — because, well, news you needed to sell advertising space and the update cycle was slower. Newspapers printed once (at most, twice) a day. It’s was expensive to collect, analyze, typeset, print, publish, distribute news.

Everything was slower, more general, more local, and I would argue, less inflammatory.

So what?

As consultants, credibility is everything. We need to use our judgement to tease out fact from fiction. Gauge what is representative and what is an outlier. Discernment. Skepticism. Hypotheses. Inquiry. Grit.

Two newspapers called Washington

A few years ago, I remember someone who proudly mentioned XYZ from the Washington Times. Digging in, I wanted to gut-check and see if that was the Washington Post. Similar I thought. . .

Washington Times is not the Washington Post

These two newspapers are not the same. Similar name, both based in Washington. That’s where the similarities end. You hear people quoting these interchangeably. Not good.

  • Washington Post. Founded in 1877. Circulation of 474,000+ (2013). Home of Woodward and Bernstein (Exposing Watergate). 69 Pulitzer prizes.
  • Washington Times. Founded in 1982 by the Unification Church. Circulation of 59,000+ (2013). No Pulitzer prizes.

The Washington POST has been around 140+ years. WP was founded in 1877, the same year as the phonograph. WT was founded in 1982, same year as the compact disc.

The Washington POST has 47 Pulitzer Prizes for Journalism. The Washington Times = none.

False equivalence

Big phrase, but you get the point. Two things are presented as if they are equal, but they are not. This happens all the time. Beware of people telling you how to think, how to decide. Beware of people oversimplifying complex ideas. Beware of pressure to make a decision when the answer can easily be a false choice.

Beware of false choice

As consultants, we are paid to be think critically. Understanding the context and choices. We should beware of default choices. False choices. What’s a man to do?

Both options?

Sometimes you don’t have to choose — you can have both. A personal example from 2003. I was given the false choice between management consulting and teaching at business school. While that might have been true then, when the options were spread out over a longer time frame — namely 12 years — I was able to do both. Some questions to ask:

  • Can I take one option now, and the other one later?
  • Can I take a part of each option now?
  • What should I do now to enable both?
  • Can I lower my expectations and have a version of both?
  • Can I time-shift my schedule or my location (remote work) to do both?

Neither option?

Don’t feel like you only have these choices. 90%+ of the readers of this blog live in the G20. You have a massive amount of choice in your life. Saying no to 2–3 bad options is often the right thing to do. Sometimes, I tell students, if someone asks you if you want to be slapped in the face or poked in the eye, say, “neither.”

1. Break down the problem. If you need to decide between 2–3 unsavory choices, maybe it’s time to slow down the conversation, take a step back, and think more deeply. Just like when you solve a puzzle, you need to know what the final picture looks like. Make sure you have all the pieces. Many times. . . Fear of missing out (FOMO) causes anxiety, pushing you towards a poor choice.

2. Get more information. We all need feedback. The more emotionally involved I am — the more I need smart, informed, trustworthy feedback. Watch out for decisions made out of pride, anger, or shame.

3. Get creative. Negotiations is about coming up with win-win solutions. Expand the pie so they other person wants to participate. Find the third way, the option which was not brainstormed yet. Break down artificial constraints. Call out the hidden assumption.

Are consultants guilty of this?

As consultants, do we sometimes fall into the mentally lazy trap of giving clients false equivalents? Do we sometimes give clients false choices?

  • We just just want them to make good decisions, right?
  • We just want progress, right?
  • We don’t want to overly confuse them, right?

However “right-hearted” this may be, no matter how good the intentions, this puts the client in a bad spot. Not respectful. On some level, this means we think they are not as smart, mature, motivated, or have enough time to really understand. Hmmm, long-term, not good.

Let’s work with clients we like

Let’s educate them. Let’s keep them mentally on-board. Let’s slow down and give them sufficient context, nuance so they really understand the spectrum of choices. Let’s be the type of advisers we would like to hire.

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Reformed management consultant who now teaches at business school. Business geek.