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Dilemma thinking? Do it differently!

Last week I attended an excellent master class about the problem with dilemma thinking, given by Dr. Fons Trompenaars. The subject matter expert in this field.

Most people see dilemmas as a difficult choice they should make between two options or alternatives. These could be two desirable options, but it makes it even more difficult if the choice is to be made between two undesirable or unfavorable alternatives.

There are many kinds of dilemmas like

  • moral/ethical dilemmas,

  • social dilemmas,

  • the Prisoner’s dilemma (a famous one)

  • Sophie's choice (another well known one)

and more.

The problem with a dilemma is that people believe that they must make a choice between the two alternatives. And if they go for B, than A is not an option. In other words 100% B means 0% for A. Or the other way round. It is black or white.

In business it is the same. Business professionals are often confronted by business dilemmas. Important questions are presented in a way that it forces the decision-maker to go for either left or right.

Please have a look at the table with a list of all sorts of dilemma examples a business professional can possibly face. Most of dilemmas here are straight business dilemmas, but some of them have an ethical aspect to it.

According to Dr. Albert Jan Stam, the dilemma could come from the conflicts between 4 different dimension values.

  1. Public Values (like sustainability)

  2. Personal Values (e.g. health)

  3. Professional Values (e.g. customer centricity)

  4. Organizational Value (like entrepreneurship).

So, the dilemma can occur when weighting the different conflicting values. Do I use public transport to support the public value of sustainability or do I use my own car because the personal value of convenience?

However, the thought that you should make a choice is wrong. Fons Trompenaars argues that it is better to find out how one option (or alternative) can support the other option.

Even stronger, he believes that (as example) centralization is a precondition for decentralization. It is impossible to do successful decentralization, when you do not have the support from centralization.

An example from Market Intelligence: Have a strong centralized team that can stimulate decentralized contribution. That input can be used for co-creation on central level, and that will support a decentralized intelligence community that contributes to centralized decision making.

As you can see, it is not central or decentral. It is doing the right actions on both sides. That is a kind of reconciliation. Not as a compromise, but rather mutual understand of support.

The described patron is like skating. One leg pushes the skate to the left, and that supports the skater to go to the right. And at the right side the push leads to a movement to the left. And the result is that the skater goes forward.

So ask yourself: What can you do on the left side that helps the right side?

Same is applicable in Formula 1 racing. Is it speed or safety? No, the answer is the reconciliation of speed and safety. And that is aerodynamics.

Don’t look in polarity-mode, meaning one or the other, but instead look for combinations and combine values ​​that are easy to reconcile.

In other words, try to turn two opposing logics into one new logic.

An actual example is the current, difficult pandemic situation. The dilemma thinking in the wrong way is Health versus Economy. Many scientists and politicians discuss the question: should we focus on Health (with negative consequences for the Economy) or should the focus be on the Economy (with negative consequences on the public Health situation)? The question that triggers the right way of dilemma thinking is: What can we do on the Economic side to support Health and the other way round?

Thinking this way will result in good solutions. (And this does not take into account a 3rd dimension: our social life, which makes it a trilemma).

THE GOLDEN NUGGET: Don’t try to make dilemmas more complex than they are. Don’t boil the ocean by trying to find answers for “trilemmas” or “tetralemmas” in one single execrcise. Work on a dilemma solution and use the reconciled result as input for the third dimension of a trilemma.

Apply this thinking technique and you will be both more successful and happier.

There is much more to say about this fascinating topic. If you want to know more about Dilemma Thinking, here are three options:

  • Buy the book “Nine visions of capitalism” by dr Fons Trompenaars.

  • Ask Fons for a keynote speech or a lecture.

  • Contact me if you would like to be coached.


PS: Fons told me that he will start a blended certification track for coaches and consultants to train them on dilemma thinking.

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