In for a Penny, in for a Pound and Other False Dichotomies

The term dichotomy goes back to the Greek dichotomía (διχοτομία) and means dividing in two. A false dichotomy is the suggestion that there are only two mutually exclusive alternatives to a question in dispute, although there are actually others or the two alternatives offered do not contradict or exclude each other at all. This rhetorical trick is popular with salespeople, for example in the form of the question of whether one would rather buy the blue or the white shirt, which deliberately omits the possibility of buying neither of them. And I also use the pattern occasionally to “facilitate” the choice of clothes for my daughters, which they of course mostly see through easily.

If you say A, you don’t have to say B. You can also see that A was wrong.

Bertolt Brecht

In Germany we have the proverb “if you say A, you also have to say B”, which could be translated to the English “in for a penny, in for a pound”. This proverb suggests that there is only the possibility to say A (and have to say B) or not to say A. Bertolt Brecht rightly identifies this as a false dichotomy, because you don’t have to continue on the path taken with A at all costs, but you can also recognize that A was an aberration and then turn back. Provided that you are able to overcome this cognitive bias of sunk costs and don’t let this false dichotomy drive you into an escalation of commitment, where further investments are justified by the already made (sunk) ones.

Somewhat more tangible, but also more difficult to recognize as a false dichotomy, are statements such as this: “There is much discussion about the meaning or purpose of companies. In the end, it’s always about making money.” Here a contradiction between purpose and profit is assumed, which does not exist at all. In fact, the right purpose, i.e. the purpose that the organization fulfills for its customers and society, is a prerequisite for profit. Profit is not an end in itself or the primary purpose, as the statement assumes, but a consequence of and the indicator for a well-chosen purpose:

Profit is not the explanation, cause, or rationale of business behavior and business decisions, but rather the test of their validity.

Peter F. Drucker

The world of agility also is full of false and sometimes misconceived dichotomies. It starts with the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. There you find for instance “Working software over comprehensive documentation”, which is deliberately not expressed as a dichotomy (with “instead”). However, it is often interpreted as such. It is not a matter of concentrating only on working software and not creating any documentation. The thesis deliberately spans a continuum and then makes a statement about the tendency: “That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.” The same applies to the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership. There, for example, “Unleashing human potential over employing human resources” also means a spectrum with a tendency towards the first part.

Moving away from these misconceived dichotomies towards a real false dichotomy. A classic is the assertion that agility and stability or quality respectively are mutually exclusive. As if agile software development means to move from one buggy beta version to the next. At first it sounds quite reasonable that frequent changes also lead to many errors and instability. Especially when you have been plagued by large and bug-prone software releases in the past. In fact, however, more frequent deliveries up to continuous integration / continuous delivery and the associated high level of automation will lead to fewer errors and that the remaining errors will be discovered earlier and that a fix will be delivered more quickly as well.

Therefore, be wary the next time someone insists on doing something “right or not at all” or tells you that the “enemy of your enemy is your friend” or in any other form offers two alternatives. Anyway, my daughters are very alert when I want to speed up the choice of their dresses in such a way.

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