False Dichotomies and Political Narratives: It Matters To All of Us

You might have noticed that I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet on the blogging front recently.  There have been many reasons for this, not least that my day job has been very busy but another overriding reason is I have been trying to stop myself blogging anything too political.  The political landscape in the UK is—well—bizarre to put it kindly at the moment.  I look elsewhere and I see other nation-states subjected to different types of unforeseen chaotic disruption too.  I can resist the temptation to blog on items related to politics no longer 🙂 Now, before you tune out, don’t worry I won’t be touching on anything too controversial—but I’d like to look at some of the political narratives that exist in the world and what this might mean for our organisations and our attempts to change them.

The Dumbing Down Of Narrative and the Prevalence of False Dichotomies

A few years ago there was a referendum in the UK (no, not that referendum) over an ‘alternative voting system’.  This would have represented a change from a first past the post system to something closer to proportional representation.  Now, let’s ignore the pros and cons of the proposal for a moment and look at the way that the choice was presented as the narrative it created is quite significant.   The billboard below was posted in Portsmouth (a city in the UK with strong naval & military heritage) at a time when there was allegedly a lack of funding for essential equipment for the military.  

Billboard: He needs bulletproof vests not an alternative voting system

It implies and hints (without explicitly saying it) that there’s a binary choice: Either have an alternative voting system or give our hard-working military the equipment they need.

On the face of it, that’s a compelling argument isn’t it?  Why waste our money on something as frivolous as an ‘alternative voting system’ when our brave women and men on the front line are at risk.  Except, my friends, as you have probably already detected that argument is garbageIn a civilised society there ought to be a way of doing both; we are being presented (by some very carefully designed propaganda) with a classic false dichotomy.   We are presented with an ‘either/or’ discussion, to which we really also ought to ask ‘what about neither, what about something else, what about both? What other possibilities are there?’  We also ought to ask “Who is trying to convince us of this message, and why?’. 

False Dichotomies and the Creation of a Political Narrative

This type of repeatable phrase acts like an ear-worm, it’s concise and repeatable, elegant in its design even though it is logically flawed.  Yet, like an acorn in the soil it grows—but rather than a beautiful oak tree that an acorn produces it spawns a potentially toxic narrative. It blinkers thought, it closes down debate.   It’s possible for anyone to shut down an argument “So, you’re saying you don’t support our troops then are you?”. It’s almost possible to imagine the arguments in coffee-shops and the trolling on Twitter.  The message is carefully crafted with enough emotion to immediately trample down all but the most determined of logical opponents.  It creates the narrative that there’s one right path and we must follow it (in this case, rejecting the alternative voting system). It seeks to project a lovely linear landscape on what is really a messy, complex situation.  It fools us into compliance, barely asking why or who it is benefiting.  And sadly, history shows us that it works.

This might sound rather abstract and unrelated to business analysis but the same patterns appear in organisations, in my experience at least.  Cunning political foxes emerge and carefully craft their sound bites and build narratives to suit their own political ends, offering repeatable phrases and false dichotomies that others pick up on.  Perhaps you’ve heard things like:

“But we’ve got to do [X] it’s a burning platform” (It’s unlikely it’s really ‘on fire’, and the consequences of doing nothing might well have been vastly overstated—doing nothing might buy time for a more thorough exploration of the ‘art of the possible’)

“Well, they’re either with us or against us” (Can’t someone partially agree?)

“If you’re not agile you’re waterfall” (Really? Aren’t both of these things actually human constructs; change could be delivered with either, neither or possibly combinations of both.  There would be pros, and in some cases significant cons of doing that, but who decides what is ‘agile’ and what is ‘waterfall’?)

“We need to be a Level X maturity not a Level Y” (But who defined ‘maturity’? What other scales are there that might be more appropriate? And why do we even care?)

I could go on, but you get the picture.  These type of false dichotomies start change initiatives off on a fixed and often irreversible direction.  If it’s the wrong direction, then no manner of tweaking methods and methodologies on how things are delivered are going to matter.

The Unaccountable and Disappearing Politician

So, where do these false dichotomies come from?  Where did the alternative voting system poster come from?  It’s hard to know, isn’t it? If you look closely you can just about see a URL: no2av.org.uk.  This URL was presumably related to a campaigning group—the website no longer exists.  There’s no accountability, the group that propagated the message have disappeared into the shadows…

This seems like a perfect parallel for organisational change, where an exec imposes change without sufficient analysis.  Change takes time, their focus changes and they move on.  Yet the people they have imposed the change on are stuck with it.  Over time these poor recipients become cynical and fatigued by the constant whirlwind of ineffective change that does little more than dance around the edge of the real problem areas.  A new exec is installed, and the pattern starts all over again.

The Role of the BA in All of This

So why does any of this matter?  As BAs it’s absolutely imperative that we spot, call out and (where needed) challenge these types of political narratives and false dichotomies.  Of course, we absolutely should do so with rapport, and in a way that is suitable for the context we find ourselves in, but we have to be aware of the politics that are going on around us.  It’s probably true to say wherever there are people there will be questions of power and politics.  We need to spot the sound bites, ensure that unheard and marginalised voices are heard and represented, and call out petty politicking.

It isn’t easy, it won’t always make us popular, but surely it’s the ‘right’ thing to do.  And isn’t that what matters?


What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com

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davidjbeckham

Great points Adrian and kudos for ‘going political’…! I thought I’d add a couple of points that sprung to mind. Firstly, the false dichotomy is a vital one to spot for a number of reasons. It’s a symptom of a poorly thought out argument (or business case) that shoots for a lowest possible denominator of intellectual effort on behalf of the sender and receiver. Secondly, the ping-pong panto technique. “You’re wrong”… “No we’re not”…. “Yes you are”…. “No we’re not” and so we sink into an infinity of banality. Finally, the obfuscation. “So, what are you going to do about issue X?” “Well, we’re not going to do what are doing because that’s rubbish….” (Repeat till despair sets in)
As for the ‘Burning Platform’….. Well, I’m on record as saying the person who came up with that beauty should be put on one!!

Adrian Reed

Thanks Dave, great to hear from you, and great points as always. It’s frightening how often arguments (or business cases) are poorly thought out, isn’t it? So crucial that we call it out. And I totally agree about the ‘burning platform’.
Hope you’re keeping well… speak soon 🙂

James Robertson

One of the important, possibly the most important, attributes a business analyst can have is a nose for bullshit. As soon as you get the faintest whiff, it’s time to call BS, or bollocks, or fake news, or whatever is used at your organisation. The sound bite is powerful as you say, but the call of “total bullshit” is equally powerful.

The unfortunate thing is that the bullshit is usually flowing down the organisation, while the cries of BS have to work their way upward.

— James

Robert Koshinskie

I believe that false dichotomies are prevalent because they work. This (unfortunately) seems to be true for other bias and fallacy like the many ad hominem attacks we see in the US political theater, Facebook, etc. Perhaps the only real defense against these lazy but effective tools for persuasion is for everyone to become more mentally alert and less reactive.

Take the time to absorb the claim/conclusion being made, then assess the validity/strength of the premises. I would wager that more times than not one will find specious positions that fall apart with a little scrutiny, and my hope is that through daily exercise of analysis everyone will become “inoculated” to the undesirable and harmful effects of bias and falacy.

Adrian Reed

That’s a really interesting point Robert, and it makes sense. Awareness is a really important step it seems… as ever ‘critical thinking’ is such a crucial skill, and sadly one that seems to be too often overlooked! Thanks again for the comment, hope you’re keeping well.

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