Useful Binaries

A little while ago, I wrote down a few thoughts about binary vs. fractional thinking, if you have three minutes, here’s the post: Idealism vs. incrementalism.

This is somewhat of a follow-up to that post.

First, a quick definition so we’re on the same page:

Binary thinking means thinking in black or white. It has to be this or that. It can’t be anything in-between.

Non-binary thinking (or fractional thinking, if you want to be fancy) is everything in-between.

For the purpose of this post, I want to focus on binary thinking, and I want to suggest that binaries can sometimes make it easier for us to identify ways to grow.

I'll start with an example from my own life and use it to hopefully extract some general insights about how binaries can be a useful tool for growth.

My own example comes from a binary about leadership.

In a nutshell, here is the binary:

You're either a people-centric leader: You care first about the people doing the work, and then about how the work gets managed or measured.

or a process-centric leader: You care first about how the work gets managed or measured, and then about the people doing the work.

Really important note: For this (or any) binary to be an effective tool for growth, you have to choose one of the states as a starting point. That does not mean that you do not care about the other state. It simply means that you have identified your default state. Often when the situation calls for it, you will move across the entire spectrum. But if you're being honest with yourself, you likely have a default.

From the example above, my default state is people-centric.

Once I've identified this, how can I use the knowledge of this binary as a tool for growth?

Here are three ways to look at any binary as a tool for growth:

  1. Habits - I can take a look at the habits I have individually and the habits that my team has collectively, and ask, what's missing? How might we form new habits to better balance between the two binary states (people-centric, process-centric - from my example)? Habits are a very useful starting point because they get right to the heart of how you behave. If you have a default state in any binary, it is often clearly reflected in your behaviour. If you are unsure which state of a binary you fall into, ask your partner, your leader, your team, or your best friend at work.

  2. Balance on a team - Zoom out and try to categorize every individual on your team into one state in the binary. Let's suppose in my example I find that the majority of my team is people-centric vs. process-centric, does that help explain anything about the way our team behaves? You can use this knowledge to ask the exact same habit question from point #1.

  3. Identifying opposites - As you identify where your default is on a binary, you should easily be able to identify someone you know who is the exact opposite as you. You've seen how they behave, and it's obvious. If you're looking to understand how you can behave like a state that's opposite to your default (for me, that question might be, how can I be a better process-centric leader), talk to the person you've identified as your opposite, and use this binary framing to explain what you would like them to teach you.


The magic of any binary, is being able to find balance between the states.

If you're looking to explore this for yourself, start by spending the time finding the right binary.

If you're stuck, turn to the list of people I suggested at the end of the Habits section above, and ask them to use a few words to describe you. If you want to get more pointed, ask them to describe the way you work (or lead, or show up in meetings, or facilitate - pick the area that you're looking to grow in).

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