The Corner Office

Managing is not binary


Win or lose, black or white, on or off. Whatever the metric, a lot of management advice is wrapped up in binary thinking. We’ve all read the advice books and viral LinkedIn posts about the secret to winning, how to beat the competition and other buzzy phrases that tell us that if we’re not winning, we’re losing.

Now, I don’t hate that idea. Personally, I’d love to live in a world where I can choose between Option A or Option B and when I pick right, always end up in the winner’s seat. But that has never been how business works.

Instead, managing is a constant juggling act, where you’re trying to get your organization, your team and yourself to the place you want them to be. And as you work on getting to that place, you’ll often find that that goal you’ve been working toward isn’t actually what you want. Situations change, goals shift, and suddenly the goalpost isn’t anywhere near where you expected.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying you should never set any goals or target certain metrics. They’re great tools for measuring what does and doesn’t work in your favor. But it’s December, and I’d bet when checking end-of-the-year numbers, the situation is substantially more complicated than “we won” or “we lost.”

While it’s easy to think in simple, binary terms, any executive knows that that isn't how it really works. Instead, the things that come across your desk — concepts to consider, targets to set, projects to green light — are all about judgments. And judgment requires seeking out input, allocating resources to your team, and evaluating the risks and rewards of a potential next step.

All of which is to say, there’s the temptation to define success as "making X thing happen" because that’s how we think success is measured and accomplished. However, I’d suggest that, especially in external communications, we work with a vocabulary that allows for more shades of grey. Whether talking to the public, shareholders or your team members, it’s important not to treat one metric as the be-all-end-all. As tennis player Arthur Ashe famously said, “Success is a journey, not a destination.”

To step outside of my comfort zone and make a foray into the world of sports analogies, consider it as a game of football. Teams don’t win by scoring a touchdown with every throw — they win by gaining yards and stacking up the little successes until you’ve got points on the board, then doing it all over again. No coach starts a game by telling the players, “If we score 17 points, we win.” The path to success is ongoing, and it’s about a process rather than a singular goal.

So, as you’re looking over your data at the end of the year, you’re probably noticing trajectories of the last year that did and/or didn’t help your business. I suggest giving yourself and your team the latitude of considering your progress directionally. Did you get the first down? Move toward a touchdown? If you can see that you’re moving in the right direction, then don’t throw everything aside because you didn’t “win” in the way you’d hoped.

As we think in terms of trajectories, it’s an opportunity to look toward the future. What path do you want to build on, and where do you need to see even more progress next year? If you didn’t hit your big picture goals this year, take a closer look at things that gained ground, even if they weren’t quite enough. Can you reinforce those areas with extra resources?

Conversely, there are probably areas where you invested some time or money that didn’t move you in the direction you want to go. What happens if you allocate those resources into an area that made some forward ground this past year? Reinforce the efforts that are working and kill off some that aren’t. Don’t get stuck in the invested-capital fallacy. Some things just don’t work.

A win is never going to be the big, game-changing win. And a loss isn’t always a lost cause. Humans don’t exist in binary terms like that, and a little-known insider tidbit is that our customers, our teams and ourselves are all human. So instead of focusing on binary winning or losing as you close out the year, devote yourself to identifying what worked in 2021, even in little ways, and find new opportunities in 2022 to grow that little victory into a larger success.

In this column, I recommend books I’ve read that have enriched or altered my view of the world. So, I’m closing out my column for the year by encouraging everyone to pick up “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson. Not only is she an experienced journalist and a uniquely talented writer, but as a manager, I think there’s a lot to be gained by a better understanding of how the world around us helps and hinders the people with whom we manage and work. This isn’t a column for politics or social issues, but there is a real experiential value added in being able to understand better the world in which you live and work.

Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He can be reached at


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here