The tyranny of the OR – why it shouldn’t just be this or that


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Hi, I have a big question to ask: what happens when people in your team don’t contribute to your growth ideas? Do you swoop in and get things done for them, or do you wait for them to wise up, causing so much time to be lost? I can’t see the good in either scenarios. What is your advice?

Flummoxed Manager

Dear Flummoxed,

I feel your pain. I can summarise your position – should I micromanage or not? If I micromanage, I will cause the person whom I’m managing to lose all credibility in future endeavours. Better that the person leaves the organisation! Yet, when I micromanage, I am doing someone else’s job and mine; thereby stretching me out. Yet, how much time can I give a person before I should jump in and save the day? If I wait any longer, the business will suffer. Have I summed it up well enough for you?

Flummoxed, you are caught between the perennial rock and hard place. I don’t envy you.

For many people, it boils down to which of the two is more important – business results, or developing people. If the business is more important, then you opt for the micromanagement part because that will allow you to move performance in the direction that you deem fit. If developing your people is more important, then you might have to take some performance hits to get people to the place you want them to be, so that they can continue to deliver more sustained performance in time. It is, I suppose, a matter of short-termism versus long-term sustainability.

Yet, it was Jim Collins, in his book Built to Last, who termed the phrase “The Tyranny of the OR” and its counterpoint, “The Genius of the AND”. The Tyranny of the OR is simply just that – either this OR that. Either short-term business gains, OR long-term sustainability. It is as though the world was purely black and white, and everything is mutually exclusive. Collins proposes that it is not, and the solution is the Genius of the AND. Why can’t it be short-term business gains AND long-term sustainability? In a sense, if we framed the situation to be able to achieve BOTH at the same time, we enjoy the best of both worlds. The Genius of the AND.

So let us brainstorm how you can get people to be both at the same time:

  • You could meet with the person on a regular, sustained basis (e.g. once a week or fortnightly for 2 hours each), tell him what you need from him, and get him to work with his team to deliver that. In this way, you may be micromanaging him, but not his team. He will of course be seen to be leading and he has the freedom to get things done his way, so long as you have okayed it in the beginning; this will not undermine his position;

  • You could resource the team better, putting a high-performing supervisor either above or below him, to lead the charge for a time-being before letting the person take full reins. It might be seen as undermining, especially if the person reports to your high-performing supervisor, but since this is only for the duration of the project, it might not be too big a deal;

  • Obviously, you could even do both – meet with him on a sustained basis AND put in place a high-performing supervisor!

So there you are, Flummoxed, the Genius of the AND really pushes you to look at things in less diametric manner, and in a more collaborative sense. If you could have both at the same time, wouldn’t that be better? Yet, it is how we frame the situation, how we see it, that stops us from getting there. Expand your point of view and meet the tyranny of the OR head on, and you can make it happen!

Let me know if this works out for you.

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