Covid-19 and the “Tyranny of the OR”
Let’s shift our thinking from ‘Or’ to ‘And’ for all our benefit
“You want people to die!”
“You don’t care if people can’t feed their families!”
Sadly, the statements above are common the past few weeks. The news and social media divide us each day based upon these two competing narratives. It isn’t necessary.
A terrible virus that causes illness and death should bring unity, not division. Initially, the virus unified people as they stayed home to protect their communities. Now things are shifting and for a good reason. The numbers are improving, and the most ominous forecasts aren’t become reality. Emergency hospitals and navy ships are not needed. Wonderful news! We should all take great delight in these positive trends. We are not out of the woods, and there is still much to do, but it is positive.
And now, the discussion turns to what is next. The big new question:
When do we re-open the economy?
Technically we are not “re-opening” the economy. The economy is open, but it was severely curtailed to respond to Covid-19; like bending a garden hose to slow the spray of water. That was the right decision as we had to get control. In uncertain situations, we stop, analyze, and then create a new plan. We are in a mix of the analysis and action stages now, which takes us back to the questions of the economy. When do shops re-open, employees return to offices, and recreational and entertainment facilities resume their roles in our lives?
Sadly the re-open question is splintering the country into competing camps:
- Camp #1 — If you want to re-open the economy, you want people to die!
- Camp #2 — If you don’t want to re-open, you don’t care about people losing their jobs!
Both are untrue. Nobody wants anyone to die just as much as nobody wants people to lose their jobs. Yet many in media and influential positions push these either/or scenarios. They are intentionally picking sides and limiting their thinking to two ideas.
This either/or approach is known as the “Tyranny of the OR” outlined by Jim Collins, business guru and author of Good to Great and Built to Last. Collins says about great companies:
“They do not oppress themselves with what we call the “Tyranny of the OR” — the rational view that cannot easily accept paradox, that cannot live with two seemingly contradictory forces or ideas at the same time. The “Tyranny of the OR” pushes people to believe that things must be either A OR B, but not both.”
Exactly. Offering only two choices and with either option leading to dire consequences is the wrong discussion. In this case, the side effect is both sides being mischaracterized. The economy openers are portrayed as uncaring for the sick and against health care workers. “Do you not stand with the healthcare front line staff?”. Conversely, who favor longer lock-downs are touted as not caring about unemployed workers whose livelihoods are impacted. “You’re okay working from home and don’t care about the small shop owners.” Both views of each “side” are incorrect, which fuels further conflict.
Instead the debate must transition from “OR” to “AND”. Great leaders and businesses, according to Collins, reject “The Tyranny of Or”:
“Instead of being oppressed by the “Tyranny of the OR,” highly visionary companies liberate themselves with the “Genius of the AND” — the ability to embrace both extremes of a number of dimensions at the same time. Instead of choosing between A OR B, they figure out a way to have both A AND B” ( authors last name &page number)
Collin’s wisdom is more necessary now than ever. We need to keep people safe and healthy AND figure out a way to re-start our lives. We need to re-open the economy AND protect the most at risk. We must do both. There is no other way. We cannot remain sheltered until the virus is gone or there’s a vaccine because these will take at least a year, perhaps longer. Nor can we simply shove everyone back into crowded offices or restaurants. There must be a blended “AND” approach. I believe that most people want both.
Humans are smart enough to figure out better ways. Our ability to innovate and adapt is amazing. Just look at the creativity unleashed online alone with Zoom calls. We can do this and are already starting. Beyond hand-washing, individuals are hand-making masks and safely gathering for six feet apart barbecues. Large organizations are adapting too. Healthcare providers offer telemedicine. Retailers are adjusting safety policies with customer limits, in-store traffic flow arrows (Don’t go the wrong way! Guilty as charged), and increased cleaning of surfaces. I watched a checker completely wipe down the check-out stand and conveyor belt, scan 1 item for a customer, then repeat the whole process for my few products. It felt like overkill and caused a back-up, but I felt better seeing these policies in practice. Other industries will do the same because they will not survive without it.
Success lies not in discussing two opposing ideas, but by combining them — good commerce AND good safety measures. Thinking positively and demanding the best of both worlds enables us to move forward confidently in this next phase. I don’t want to settle. We don’t need to. Let’s embrace the spirit of “AND.”