There two sides to every story. He said, she said… Pros and cons… The flip side of the coin... You’re either with us or against us... On the other hand….

The ways in which binary thinking pervades our daily lives are enumerable. Two-state thinking can be found in everything from cycles within our lives such as night and day and hot and cold to conditions in our business world like positive or negative and partner or competitor. We are conditioned to think of our world as if it has two states. It’s evolutionary. Friend or foe, fight or flight, feast or famine… we tend toward binary-ism.

But does this sort of polarity help or hinder us in the business world? How do we recognize the subtleties of achieving targets and goals which are the result of ten, one-hundred or more incremental steps? How do we understand the complexity that is present in going from a current state to a future state rather than default to an oversimplified version of reality that suggests we can magically transform our organizations from bad to good via one swift decree?

Measuring Change Is Incremental

When you’re discussing percentages you probably refer to a whole number. A ‘point’ or ‘percent’ tends to be an easy way for us to measure change, alteration, growth, decline, temperature - all sorts of things. In the world of finance, we often use basis points. That is, a measurement that drills down and measures each tenth of a point. Why? Is this just fancy speak so that the Wall Street types can sound smart on the financial news report? Maybe. But, there are also good reasons for it. Change doesn’t come overnight, in one massive shift. Nor can it be measured in all cases by full points or percents. The incremental nature of metrics, as well as changes in human behavior, mean we must sometimes be granular and use those basis points to track a trajectory. As we seek to understand which direction our operation is going, measurement and tracking at a very fine level of detail helps us see if the actions we are taking are having the desired effect.

When measuring or tracking your business, it is important to stand back and see the entire range of a given result, but it is also necessary to see all of the inflection points along the way. Defaulting to an oversimplified binary state of ‘broken’ to ‘fixed’ robs us of the understanding we need to understand how the fix was accomplished - and, how to replicate it next time.

Leading Change Is Incremental

If you lead a business unit or company, chances are you’re in the middle of changing or correcting something in your organization right now. Your revenue is X and it should Y. Your year over year growth is A and it should be B. You may be retooling a team, or reorganizing your processes and seeking lean strategies to bring greater efficiencies to your workflow. When you stand back and look at those issues and plot graph points for today and your goal achievement deadline, the delta between those two states can be daunting. Right now, all around us, in companies all over the world, there are impassioned directives of ‘what’ being given to employees and teams, and sadly, not a lot of conversation given to ‘how’.

‘What’ is binary. ‘Get your results from here to there.’ Yes, that clarity of purpose is important as the GPS system of our businesses needs to know the ‘from’ and ‘to’ for us to be able to go anywhere. But, those systems have checkpoints. They are also in constant contact with satellites and internal mapping systems that help in verifying all of those basis points on the path to 100% completion of the journey. I bet, per my examples above, that you’ve recently been given a ‘what’ by a more senior leader, or your board, or perhaps outside focus group feedback or Wall Street. But that ‘what’ alone isn’t enough to get your organization to the desired change. If you want to actually achieve your goal, we have to break down the details between the binary states of ‘here’ and ‘there’. The reason for this is my humble belief in the three elements that make leaders truly successful:

The most impactful leaders are those that can do three things - 1: Assemble solid teams into a vibrant culture 2: Create direction toward a compelling, mission-driven cause, and 3: Regularly and consistently break down the complexity of problem solving into sequences which are repeatable.

The last point has everything to do with resisting the lazy view of suggesting that ‘broken’ to ‘fixed’ is a one step journey. As they say, you can’t eat the elephant in one bite.

Achieving Change Is Incremental

All of that takes us to goal setting and putting our plans into action. Over the course of many years I have led in-depth change conversations and goal setting sessions maybe 10,000 times. I have sat, stood, met with and planned along side leaders in many sectors as we created goals, plotted paths to achieve them and listed action steps. It is a process I find extremely satisfying, if at times a bit infuriating. For all leaders and owners of businesses or business units, I insist upon a quality check for our action step creation and goal setting that is designed to specifically guard against oversimplified binary thinking. I often refer to this check as a ‘get up and go do it’ filter. Here’s how it works:

Perhaps I am working with an area director who has responsibility for a territory. Their customer conversions are down and the leader has been tasked with understanding the issues and plotting some action steps for change. Now, let’s say one of the action steps that has been suggested by the director is to ‘improve the online marketing plan targeting new customer acquisition’.

Now, stop.

When I hear a leader prepare to memorialize an action step like that I ask that leader to get up and go do it. Show me how you ‘improve the online marketing plan…’. That leader will probably look at me with some sort of incredulous expression resembling ‘what, you want me to really go do it now?’. And, our discussion begins. Here’s my point - Verbs and details matter. Goal setting is a part of a root cause analysis process which is downstream from problem solving on the issue we have identified. During these examinations, we often default to over simplified binary thinking. That ‘broken’ to ‘fixed’ mentality creeps and in we commit to some high level change in our systems which probably isn’t granular enough to really address the problem. If we run the ‘get up and go do it’ check on our action plan, we discover that anything you can’t literally pick up the phone about or walk to and put your hands on isn’t detailed enough. If an action step toward your goal can be broken down into a smaller step, don’t write it. We often make the mistake of writing aspirations which we call action steps. This is true when people want to lose weight and they set a pound loss goal or a calories per day target. Those examples aren’t granular enough for true behavioral change and they aren’t behavioral. Where’s the verb? That person would do better to write down the steps of 1) Packing a workout bag which goes with them to work 2) Calendaring from Noon to 1PM everyday for a workout and 3) Listing the exercises they will do during that workout. These are actions that can truly be put on their feet and now fitness isn’t an aspiration, it’s a repeatable routine.

Begin To Watch and Listen For Binary-ism

In our professional spaces, we are all guilty of utilizing and allowing binary or polar thinking. Each of us can see improvement in our own leadership and the leadership of our teams if we simply become more aware.

Call out your teams when they take an approach which is too broad or general when planning for change. Challenge them, and yourself, to take change deltas and break them down into steps, granular checkpoints which become a roadmap leading you from today’s performance to tomorrow’s favorable trend line.

In addition to becoming aware of how we process change and behavioral deltas in a binary way, we must also recognize how our binary minds influence our relationships and collaborations. This topic is a complex one that I will save for a future writing, but understanding our two-state mindsets is a big part of us learning how to build powerful relationships, create constituencies and align our skills with others in order to achieve real change. Much of our pubic world these days, in news and government, is built on reinforcing these binary beliefs. As business leaders, we can make a positive difference by challenging ourselves and those around us to think beyond a two-tone understanding of issues and appreciate all of the gradients in between. Doing so will propel us to enhanced problem solving processes, and perhaps, make our workplaces and the world around us a little better too.

Do you or your team need to dig deeper into your change management process and improve your business planning or calls to action? Are there results-oriented aspects of your operation that would benefit from your leaders being more skilled at understanding the details within the delta between your current state to where you’d like to be? Get in touch with me and perhaps I can help. I have led individuals and teams in goal setting processes, growth strategies and helped leaders in many sectors build repeatable processes which enabled continued improvement.


— Kimball Carr is a writer, owner and multi-unit leader with more than two decades of business experience across a wide array of sectors. He has produced work for print, film and the software world and has contributed his leadership to 3 of Fortunes best 100 companies to work for. As a consultant, he works with businesses and individuals and is currently the co-founder of Grom Coast Surf & Skate, an apparel brand and retail store built specifically for kids. — 

Photo by Linh Pham on Unsplash