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Beware False Dichotomies: Playing the Trumpet to Avoid the Choir

Man playing a trumpet
Artwork from a hotel I stayed in. Really.

It may surprise some readers to know that, although I am from the UK, I spent part of my life growing up in the USA.  I have fond memories of Rochester, Minnesota which was the place where I learned what “winter” really means (the British view of what constitutes ‘snowfall’ is very different to a Minnesotan’s).  I enjoyed learning about the cultural differences, and learned a lot about how quirky British people really are.  Being outside of my own national culture made me realise how over-politeness and an obsession with ‘fair play’ and queuing really does typify the British psyche.


It was a fantastic opportunity, and I enjoyed studying at a US school.  The curriculum was different and when I moved up to the next grade at an age of ten or eleven years, there was an increased focus on learning music.  I remember, vividly, speaking to one of my trusted classmates who told me:


“This year you have to choose an instrument, and get good at it.  If you don’t choose an instrument, you have to join the choir”.


Shock! Panic!

A Common Response: “Choosing the Best of a Bad Lot”

Now, I was back then (believe it or not) a softly spoken, shy, unassuming lad—made worse by the fact that initially people struggled to latch on to my accent.  I have never been one for singing (with the occasional exception in my adult life of enjoyable but very bad karaoke) so the idea of singing in public scared me a lot more than learning an instrument.  So, in the spirit of ‘choosing the best of a bad lot’, I went home and pondered over different instruments.  I loved the way a violin looked, but I had heard that a violin is very difficult to play.  In my young naivety I chose a trumpet.   How hard can an instrument with three ‘buttons’ be, I thought.  Very hard, it turns out… very hard.


Zoom forward in time to later that year, and it is clear that I have zero talent for the trumpet.  I am practicing lots, just to keep up with other students, so much so that other study is being affected and in particular maths is getting markedly worse.  I discuss with my parents and my teacher, who said something like.


“You could always drop learning an instrument.  It’s mainly extra-curricular anyway. You’d have a free period each week—which you could use to catch up on your math”.


I ask “Wouldn’t I have to join the choir?” and am met with a puzzled face; no not at all.  So, I drop the trumpet and focus back on other subjects.  Things start to improve.


Crucial for Business & Projects: Flag those False Dichotomies

I was reflecting on this story recently, after looking at some old photos, and it struck me how in business, projects (and in life) we are often too quick to accept false dichotomies.   We accept people telling us that we (or a project) can have ‘either/or’.   And perhaps, as business analysts, change-makers and citizens we should spend more time asking “why not both”, “what about neither” and “why not a third, fourth or even fiftieth option”.


For example:


Provocative Statement Possible Questions
“The two options we have for meeting the project objectives are implementing a new IT solution or implementing a manual workaround”.


Are these the only possible options?

Could there be a middle-option?

Can we imagine other possible solution options?

“If we don’t have this feature, the system won’t work for us. If you want the system to work we need it”. What other features might make the system workable and loveable?


“You either support the sponsor’s position or you don’t”.


What about having a neutral view, or no view?

What about partial agreement?

“If we cut costs we’ll impact quality. If you want high quality it costs”. Is this always the case?

What about addressing waste and duplication?

What about smarter use of processes, technology and other capabilities?

“You’re either a business analyst or a business architect”. What about common areas and intersections between the two disciplines?  Wouldn’t it be better to foster collaboration than building silos?


Of course, the statements may be true in some situations, and it won’t always be appropriate or useful to question them.  But context is crucial—and so often a statement that holds true in one context isn’t true (or only holds partially true) in another. There is a risk that we confidently become constrained by implicit assumptions that might be false.


So, as practitioners of change, looking out for false dichotomies and tactfully challenging them will help us to co-create outcomes that our stakeholders and communities need.   And if nothing else, it’ll prevent us from unnecessarily playing the trumpet to avoid the choir 🙂 .


What are your views on false dichotomies , do you have any tips, perspectives or anything to add?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.   Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing! 

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About the author:

Adrian ReedAdrian 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.

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2 thoughts on “Beware False Dichotomies: Playing the Trumpet to Avoid the Choir”

  1. I LOVE your example, Adrian. I too attended school on the American continent (in Canada) and joined the choir because I thought an instrument would be “too hard”. And that’s when we discovered that repeated ear infections in my early years had rendered me tone deaf – to the detriment of the choir. Nobody ever told me that “neither” was also an option.

    I have often pushed that question in requirements discussions but never tied it back to my unhappy experience.

    P.S. My family returned to South Africa at the end of the year and the choir was relieved of my disruptive influence.

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