Black, white and the reality of grey

SimonOff topic

As a wet-behind-the-ears graduate my first real job was as a graduate trainee at retailer Boots.

I joined the marketing scheme in their Nottingham head office. I spent many hours in meeting rooms being drilled in the disciplines of marketing and management.

One of the mantras that Boots drilled into us was a management philosophy called value-based management (VBM).

At its core was a focus on taking management decisions that added shareholder value.

As a major listed company the logic of this was clear. And the congruence between what made sense for the company and what that meant for our decisions as newbie graduates was clear as well.

But where VBM went wrong was in its implementation.

It paralysed too many managers (and graduates too) by encouraging them to look for data-led evidence of whether a decision would add value.

Analysis of data became paramount as the means to making and justifying a decision. I remember well pushing through layer after layer of statistical analysis to try to justify a decision.

Leaving aside the way this so obviously slowed down decision-making to a snail’s pace, with the benefit of hindsight and nearly 20 years experience I can see a fundamental flaw.

The way Boots did VBM tried to make binary decisions – either a particular course of action was shareholder value-adding or not.

But that’s not the way things work in the real world.

As an agency MD almost every single decision I make is not binary.

If I’m making a binary decision, it’s probably one that someone else should have taken.

So my decision-making is typically somewhere on a continuum between a “one” and a “zero” in the binary world.

It’s in the grey, not the black or the white of decision-making.

The grey is the space where your judgement counts.

It’s the place where personal experience, skills and context really come into play.

Yet being able to assess and take decisions in this space is really hard.

It’s where objectivity and subjectivity collide. And it’s where success and failure are really determined.

Like my esteemed colleague Ronald wrote about earlier in the year, being able to deal with “the grey” is vital.

Yet my instinct tells me that social media, algorithmic news and confirmation bias are combining to lead to polarisation of decision-making.

The ubiquity of information through digitally-connected tools provides a firehose of content that can justify and amplify just about any reasonably held opinion.

And that confirmation leads to things being seen as binary once again.

Which is very different to the real world where virtually nothing is really binary.

Yet in politics, society and culture we’re seeing the polarisation that shows binary thinking is more and more common in the world around us.

A bit of me can’t help but think that a bit more thinking in the grey and a bit less black and white thinking wouldn’t hurt.