Beware False Binaries

False Binaries (aka False Dilemmas) have nothing to do with 0 and 1 bits—sorry to disappoint anyone hoping to read a more technical post.

False Binaries

Rather, it is a dilemma that is presented as having limited responses when, in fact, more options are available. False Binary choices restrict your possibilities and anchor your thinking. They are a ploy to force agreement. Limited options are strongly appealing, thus an easy trap to fall into. As a leader, you will make decisions based upon the information given to you. If you are presented with a false binary, you need to identify it, and avoid the trap.

False binary choices are not always limited to two options, but are always presented as mutually exclusive:

Either Joe, or Doug, or Sharon caused the problem. 

Perhaps all, none, or some combination of the people caused the problem. Possibly, other factors or outside actors contributed. Maybe, there is not actually a problem. If you uncritically assume the initial statement is true, you will never get to a deeper understanding of the root cause. 

A Typical Example

False Binaries often sound true until more deeply examined. At some point, you may have been presented with a statement like this:

“We can either ship the product by December 1 or we will fail.”

There may be some truth to this statement. But digging deeper will reveal how fixed these options truly are.

• Why is December 1 the critical date?

• What features are required to ship?

• Is it possible to ship the product in stages?

• Is failure absolute, or only regrettable?

• Who is waiting for this product on that date?

For this example, you may be able to ship various parts of the product over time, as long as key components ship by December 1. Or “failure” might mean some embarrassment, but no other consequences. It might be possible to ship a first pass of the product by the due date, and fix issues and minor features later.

A more accurate statement might be:

We need to either ship a Beta version of the product to key customers by December 1, or inform customers of the delay and new estimated delivery, or we will miss the deadline and disappoint the key customers.” 

The initial statement falsely precludes any flexibility and railroads decision makers into a single option: ship the full product by December 1, no matter the cost. The restatement implies there are options for addressing the problem.


It is simpler to think in terms of a limited set of exclusive choices. Sometimes this is the correct approach; sometimes it is a lazy shortcut. Do not let this sort of thinking constrain your options. Keep an open mind when given rigid choices. Beware false binaries.