Developing the “Both and” Mindset

Clients often share a situation or challenge with me and as their consultant they ask me to advise them on a course of action. Often during the conversation, the Client will identify two distinctly different courses of action – that may at first seem to be in opposition. The question is basically formatted as an “either or” question – “Should I do A or B?”

Often, my answer is “yes.” After getting a confused look, I explain that the answer lies not in one or the other of the alternatives, but in exploring and doing both. This is what I call “both and” thinking. Collins and Porras in their book Built to Last call it “avoiding the Tyranny of the OR, and embracing the Genius of AND.”

“Either or” thinking is pervasive in our world.


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Let’s take the example of the common phrase, “black or white.” When we think of black or white, we often try to balance by looking for the “shades of gray” – thinking that in balance or compromise we will find the right solution. This is seldom the most valuable approach. My suggestion is to consider black and white.

That “either or” solution inevitably leads to suboptimal solutions, and under satisfying compromises. Balance is not found in some murky middle ground, but rather by dedicating our focus to both ends of the spectrum.

Black and white.

We can take this concept beyond the philosophical and find specific ways to use “both and” thinking in all parts of our lives. Below is a list of 10 “both and” combinations that will make you a better leader of yourself and others.

Strengths and weaknesses. What we receive feedback, we typically focus on our weaknesses and work to improve in those areas. This is fine, but if all of our effort is focused here, and none is focused on valuing and strengthening our strengths, we are not investing our time and effort in the most effective way. Are there weaknesses to improve? Of course there are. But think too of your strengths and build those.

Timeless and new. New ideas are seductive, and we must be mindful of and willing to move forward with new ideas.

But we can’t focus on the new without a bedrock of timeless principles to guide us. History does repeat itself, so when we find the timeless principles in the new ideas; we will gain even greater clarity and create greater progress.


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Expert and novice. Have a problem to solve? Consider having an expert help you think it through. Consider also bringing someone in with no prior knowledge or preconceived ideas about the situation. Expert and novice. Both bring value to a problem solving challenge or innovation opportunity.

Inform and listen. Great communicators do more than inform. They also listen. Great communicators are not great because they can do one or the other of these exceptionally well, but because they can do both exceptionally well.

Demanding and supportive. As a leader of ourselves or others we need to be demanding and tough because clear expectations are important and motivating. Results are needed. However, if we drive for the results without supporting people and their feelings, ultimately people won’t reach their true potential.

Goals and serendipity. To succeed at the highest levels we must have a target in mind, a vision, a goal.

The most successful people have clear goals and continue to listen for the knock of opportunity. They value the serendipitous moment and meeting, and recognize that in those moments their goals might be adjusted reprioritized or otherwise change. Simply leaving our lives to serendipity will not create the greatest results. Conversely, remaining it rigidly goal focused, may preclude us from seeing many great opportunities.

Task and process. The work must be done – the task is important. However, thinking of the process, the flow, and how the work is done is equally important. If we solely focus on getting out the work we’ll miss opportunities to improve the process and make it easier, more productive and more enjoyable. On the other hand, if we spend all of our time planning the process, we will never get results. Maintain both a task and process focus.

Strategy and tactics. We must plan. Strategy is important.

But we also must take action. Tactics are imperative. The most successful people and leaders value strategy in the context of actionable tactics that moved them towards those strategic ideals.

Customer focus and employee focus. Some organizations feel that the Customer is always right and all work should be done in service for the Customer. Others feel that if they treat their employees right, the Customers will ultimately be satisfied. These are not diametrically opposed ideas.

Clearly, Customers and employees are the two most valuable assets any business holds. Focus on them both.

Individual and team. Individual talent, performance and productivity are critical; however individual success cannot trump synergistic collaboration. Work on building individual skills, and empower educate and support teams as well.

I could add to this list, but hopefully you already see the wisdom of “both and” thinking. Chances are, as you begin to value and create this mindset for yourself, you will find more and more of these combinations that you can apply.

The “both and” mindset will help you become more successful and paradoxically create greater clarity and balance in your life. Take the time to think about and nurture this mindset today.

Thank you for taking the time to read our article.

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