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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