I was out with a group of small business owners recently who were bemoaning the difficulty of doing business in New York City. Taxes, regulations and cutthroat competition are the major complaints. Of course, if you want access to a marketplace of eight million potential customers, those sound like petty obstacles. More than one millionaire and quite a few empires have been started in a single storefront in the Big Apple.
During our outing, one member of the small group became the target of the others. New to the city, he had taken the attitude that most things in the business were either good or bad. Whatever middle ground he saw would take a powerful microscope to discern. He was a binary thinker. For him, the business world was divided into a series of "yes" or "no" questions. All of his problems, though perhaps not simple, were easily solved in this manner.
He viewed himself as a decisive businessman. He took pride in being the guy who made tough decisions quickly. But when there are only two choices, that doesn't seem much of a trick. No matter how much bravado and personal style you throw behind the choice, the result that arrives may not be a happy one.
"He ain't gonna make it," one member of the group whispered to me. "That just isn't a way to do business."
Thinking about it later, I agreed that he probably wasn't going to make it. What he had done was reduce the world and his problems down to a size that fit his comfort zone. He was functioning in a manner that assumed the business world is one of absolutes with the choices all mutually exclusive. The phrase most commonly used to describe this way of thinking is the bifurcation fallacy. It sets up two opposing choices with the expectation of choosing one. The fallacy part is that only two choices exist. It is a common, often over-used tactic in high school debates.
There are absolutes in the business and in life, but there also are multitudes of complex problems. These are the types of problems that require compromise, creativity, multi-step solutions and knowing when to trim or cut losses. Limiting your options to just two choices imposes enormous restrictions on problem solving and greatly reduces the odds for good results.
Not to seem unkind, but the yes-or-no man had not risen to the challenge of the hyper-competitive marketplace that is New York City and, increasingly, the rest of the world. I don't question that he enjoyed the hustle and the bustle. I also happen to know for a fact that he possessed the requisite expertise and skill set in his field for success. What he lacked was an ability to deal with complex problems in a pragmatic manner. This became clear during the course of the conversation when he related how his business problems seemed to increase in both size and frequency. Whatever successes he managed to accumulate were largely illusory.
The binary thinking of yes-or-no man was present in all his business dealings, from customers to suppliers. He divided the world into friend and foe. There was no middle ground. It must be both comforting and frustrating to live in such a world.
At the end of the day, I cannot honestly say whether yes-or-no man will succeed. But one thing is certain: He will either make it or he won't.