Moving beyond the binary thinking model

Binary thinking is a hangover from the last century. As a society, we are taught to think in binary terms. If something isn’t good, then it’s bad. If it isn’t big, then it’s small. It’s always one or the other.

Binary thinking is always evident in the reporting of news and current affairs. Over the Christmas period, simultaneous reports on the automotive industry reported the good: “Sales are strong and growing, employment is shooting up in car manufacture” and the bad: “the automotive industry is dying far quicker than anticipated”.

High street retail was reported to be showing huge signs of recovery and prosperity at the beginning of the year, at more or less the same time as various national retail brands closed their doors and everyone expressed a degree of regret about the slow and embarrassing death of the high street. Just this week, the largest shopping mall in Europe, Trinity Leeds, by Landsec, opened for trading. Binary isn’t helpful in explaining the multiple shifts and undulations we experience today. Things are not simply up or down, they are changing, and change is tumultuous.

We all believe we are enduring this economic dip with stoicism and patience, as though it might suddenly end one day soon. We’re all waiting for the binary flip that will return us to pre-recession happiness. It’s possible to read in one journal that the hard times are over, that growth has returned, that we’ve emerged from the financial winter into a promising springtime. Whilst reading that, if one’s eye was to stray onto a fellow commuter’s newspaper, we might read that it’s all just got a lot worse, that we’re plunging into a deeper fiscal chasm, of unprecedented hardship, and that the last four years have been a camping trip compared to what’s coming next.

Latest estimates suggest that even if nothing else goes wrong, we won’t get back to where we were before the recession started, until around 2017. That’s if nothing else goes wrong, and let’s face it… things do keep going wrong.

The truth is; the idea of ‘recession’ feels like the best piece of terminology we have at our disposal to describe what’s going on, and predicting recovery by 2017 encourages us to cling to the binary thinking model of the past. When we turn to the elders for advice, they can only speak in binary terms about their experiences of the inevitable dips and flows of an economy that used to run on a set of rails, with everything in symbiosis, defined by the same principles, and guided by the same ebbs and flows.

These days, the global economy has decoupled from the binary model and taken to a multitude of rails and platforms. It’s much less likely that everything will recover nicely and with synchronicity as it used to in the old days. Industries won’t all simultaneously come good, all at the same time, via a domino effect, because everything is operating on totally different frequencies now. It’s not a train track any more, it’s a bunch of independent roller coasters.

This means it’s now more crucial than ever before to have a keen eye on the outlying territories of your category and beyond. Look to the innovations, new ways of thinking and doing, the fledgling models of grass roots businesses trying to find new ways up. It’s vital to be inspired and to take advantage of ideas and practices working well on other people’s roller coaster rides.