The Power of “Both…And” Thinking

Thomas E. Ambler, Senior Consultant, Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.

Note: This article was previously published in Compass Points in February 2006

Strategic Planning Expert

Strategic Planning Expert

In a previous article I dealt with the strategic impact of the “Golden Rule” approach to business. Here I want to consider an important facet of the “Golden Rule” approach, the power of “both…and” thinking. “Both…and” thinking starts with really listening. Then it takes the best and most passionately held parts of each party’s position and combines them with that of others to produce a new and better alternative. Covey calls this the “Third Alternative” in his book, The 8th Habit. He states on page 187, “The Third Alternative isn’t my way, it isn’t your way-it’s our way. It’s not a compromise halfway between your way and my way; it’s better than a compromise…. The Third Alternative is a better alternative than any that have been proposed.” “Both…and” thinking is a practice I adopted over 30 years ago and have used with genuine success in my own general management career, consulting practice and personal life. It contrasts sharply with the more prevalent “either…or,” positional approach predicated on the generally false assumption that the supply of resources and recognition is scarce.

Because of our pervasive and natural tendency toward self-centeredness and pride, we generally define success as “winning-on our terms.” As long as others we work with have these same terms, we can become a winning team. Unfortunately, we normally encounter different perspectives and goals combined with pride, a recipe for conflict and mistrust. In a highly competitive society that generally buys into the battlefield/athletic paradigm that “winning is everything and losing is nothing,” we find ourselves engaged in “win-lose,” “line in the sand,” “either…or” thinking. Inevitably, this divisive behavior causes us to spin our wheels, resulting in lots of heat but no forward motion. It happens so often that we can’t help asking the question, “What percentage of the 450,000 waking hours in our lifetimes do we waste in arguments generated by ‘either…or’ thinking?”

Decision-making is the most important activity in all of life. In the corporate arena it typically involves conflicting perspectives among those who participate in the decision. This conflict can set up an unhealthy “either…or” situation that degenerates into a “herding of cats” leadership issue. Therefore, an effective leader draws out the thoughts of his or her people and models “both…and” thinking to produce a group decision that the team can celebrate as better than any one person’s contribution. This is likely one of the primary attributes of Jim Collins’ Good to Great “Level 5 Leaders.” A Level 5 Leader takes the view that success is not about winning personally but rather about winning as an organization. Like Level 5 Leadership, the beauty of the “both…and” approach is that it can be practiced by anyone, not just the recognized leader. Furthermore, it contributes to success even when only one person in a group practices it.

Consider examples where you have seen “both…and” thinking practiced. Perhaps it’s been in a successful business negotiation. Maybe it’s been working on a major project with a team where things needed to be hashed out. Or perhaps it’s been a brainstorming session that was intentionally structured to remove the need to win individually. You engaged with others in a powerful and stimulating way and contributed ideas willingly to develop big “both…and” concepts owned by the entire team. This is synergy and it happens only when you choose not to pursue the natural inclination toward ‘either…or’ behavior. Strategic planning teams who have successfully practiced “checking their egos at the door” have experienced this same synergy.

“both…and” thinking can become “grooved” when two requirements are satisfied-you have the desire to rise above self-centeredness and the discipline to practice it. So when you feel yourself getting exercised emotionally or being drawn into an argument, challenge yourself (and perhaps others) with the question, “am I engaging in ‘either…or’ thinking?” If so, follow with the question, “how can I elevate my thinking to a ‘both…and’ level?”

Practice a “both…and” approach and see if you don’t (a) have more fun, (b) have more friends and (c) have greater business and personal success. Those who use it like it!

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© Copyright 2015 by Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI — Reprint permission granted with full attribution.

Tom Ambler is a Senior Consultant with Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc. He can be reached by email at