False Dichotomy

A previous article suggested that the two ways to deal with potentially disruptive technologies are to either invest in all potentially disruptive technologies or to ignore all potentially disruptive technologies.

One of the most powerful ways to go wrong is the False Dichotomy, which is also known as false choice, black and white thinking, or either/or thinking. Typically this involves a situation which is presented as a binary choice of either A or B, with the implicit or explicit assumption that these are the only possible choices – there are no alternatives C, D, or E.

In real world situations this is almost never the case. There are always options, or at least variations on the two choices presented. In many cases the alternatives presented are the extreme positions, ignoring the many alternatives between them.

Further, in the case of disruptive innovation the best alternative may be neither A nor B but “kumquat” – something completely unexpected and entirely outside the range of alternatives being considered! A popular saying is “On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your favorite color in the alphabet?”. While these examples appear nonsensical, they illustrate the need to consider alternatives that may not be obvious – an approach often called thinking outside the box.

Two points are worth making: first, there is almost never The Right Answer – that is, a single correct answer that solves all problems and where any other answer is Wrong. Instead, there are a range of alternatives that can be made to work with various levels of effort and trade-offs. Part of product planning is to explore these alternatives and to determine the benefits, cost, and risk associated with each.

Second, interesting problems are invariably multi-variate. Instead of a single parameter that can be optimized, several interacting parameters must be considered. Any real world situation is going to involve a series of trade-offs, typically between capabilities, cost, investment, resources, integration, and time. Other factors include side effects and consequences: for example, one material being considered for a product may have all desired physical properties but be toxic.

Also important is understanding whether a constraint is an absolute constraint like the speed of light¹ or is flexible. In the example above, a toxic material might be used if it is carefully packaged.

Looking for The Right Answer can lead to ignoring acceptable solutions and approaches that can be made to work. A better approach is to consider multiple potential solutions, determine the strengths and weaknesses of each – including what can be done to address these weaknesses – and choose the best overall solution. Note that the best overall solution will often include elements from multiple approaches – even elements from both halves of the false dichotomy!

For product development the challenge is to understand customer needs well enough to provide a product that meets their needs at a price they are willing to pay. Note that the customer has the final word on what their needs are – if a feature is not wanted or used by a customer, that feature does not meet their needs. The ideal is a product that meets current customer needs and can be extended to meet future needs.

While product definition is often done informally, there are structured approaches that can be used. A powerful technique is Design Thinking.

Design Thinking uses a five step process of: defining (or redefining) the problem, needfinding and benchmarking, ideating, building, and testing. Design Thinking is a team based approach, best done with a multidisciplinary team bringing different knowledge, expertise, and viewpoints to the project.

Much of the power of Design Thinking comes from applying a structured methodology to complex problems – much more than a blog post is needed to really understand it, much less apply it. Fortunately there are many resources available, including books and courses. Both edX and Coursera offer courses on the subject, with edX even offering a five course “micromasters” program.

Next: Investing in Disruptive Technologies


¹ This is something of a trick example. The speed of light in a vacuum can’t be exceeded. However light travels through other materials at different (slower) speeds. For example, light in a fibre optic cable is roughly 30% slower than in a vacuum. This means that it can be faster to use a microwave link than a fibre optic cable, leading to interesting designs for systems with minimal latency.

There is a lot of interesting work going on around quantum entanglement that may allow information exchange to exceed the speed of light – this would definitely be a disruptive technology! Thus this is actually an example of the importance of understanding your constraints and exploring novel options to possibly work around fixed constraints!

About Russell Doty

A technology strategist and product manager at Red Hat, working on the next generation of open source systems.
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