False equivalence: Washington Post vs. Washington Times

By | July 24, 2017

These two newspapers are not the same. Similar name, both based in Washington. That’s where the similarities end. You hear people quoting these interchangeably. Not good.

  • Washington Post. Founded in 1877. Home of Woodward and Bernstein (Exposing Watergate). Circulation of 474,000+ (2013).  47 Pulitzer prizes.
  • Washington Times. Founded in 1982 by the Unification Church. Circulation of 59,000+ (2013)

Washington POST has been around 140+ years.  WP was founded in 1877, the same year as the phonograph.  WT was founded in 1982, same year as the compact disc.

Washington POST has 47 Pulitzer Prizes for Journalism. That is 12 more than the number of years the Washington Times has been around.

False equivalence. Big phrase, but you get the point. Two things are presented as if they are equal, but they are not. This happens all the time. Beware of people telling you how to think, how to decide. Beware of people oversimplifying complex ideas. Beware of pressure to make a decision when the answer can easily be a false choice.

Beware of false choice. As consultants, we are paid to be think critically. Understanding the context and choices. We should beware of default choices. False choices. What’s a man to do?

Both options? Sometimes you don’t have to choose – you can have both. A personal example from 2003. I was given the false choice between management consulting and teaching at business school. While that might have been true then, when the options were spread out over a longer time frame – namely 12 years – I was able to do both. Some questions to ask:

  • Can I take one option now, and the other one later?
  • Can I take a part of each option now?
  • What should I do now to enable both?
  • Can I lower my expectations and have a version of both?
  • Can I time-shift my schedule or my location (remote work) to do both?

Neither option? Don’t feel like you only have these choices. 90%+ of the readers of this blog live in the G20. You have a massive amount of choice in your life. Saying no to 2-3 bad options is often the right thing to do. Sometimes, I tell students, if someone asks you if you want to be slapped in the face or poked in the eye, say, “neither.”

1. Break down the problem. If you need to decide between 2-3 unsavory choices, maybe it’s time to slow down the conversation, take a step back, and think more deeply. Just like when you solve a puzzle, you need to know what the final picture looks like. Make sure you have all the pieces. Many times. . . Fear of missing out (FOMO) causes anxiety, pushing you towards a poor choice.

2. Get more information. We all need feedback. The more emotionally involved I am – the more I need smart, informed, trustworthy feedback. Watch out for decisions made out of pride, anger, or shame.

3. Get creative. Negotiations is about coming up with win-win solutions. Expand the pie so they other person wants to participate. Find the third way, the option which was not brainstormed yet. Break down artificial constraints. Call out the hidden assumption.

Are consultants guilty of this? As consultants, do we sometimes fall into the mentally lazy trap of giving clients false equivalents? Do we sometimes give clients false choices?

  • We just just want them to make good decisions, right?
  • We just want progress, right?
  • We don’t want to overly confuse them, right?

However “right-hearted” this may be, no matter how good the intentions, this puts the client in a bad spot. Not respectful. On some level, this means we think they are not as smart, mature, motivated, or have enough time to really understand. Hmmm, long-term, not good.

Let’s work with clients we like. Let’s educate them. Let’s keep them mentally on-board. Let’s slow down and give them sufficient context, nuance so they really understand the spectrum of choices. Let’s be the type of advisers we would like to hire.

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5 thoughts on “False equivalence: Washington Post vs. Washington Times

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Fascinating read. Thank you. You know – consultants do process work well. Looks like McKinsey discovered a “lower spec” immigrant with fewer rights / privileges. 1) Good job in determining the segmentation which allowed for greater throughput. 2) Bad because they pushed the bottleneck to somewhere else in the system:

      “triggering hundreds of thousands of appeals that have created a new backlog — not in asylum centers, but in German courts

      Great read – thank you. Also, $34M in fees is not too shabby.

  1. Wim Kotze

    Thanks, some of it is common sense advice, but valid nevertheless. Sometimes it takes discipline to remind ourselves of obvious checks in making a choice.

    Point 2, “we need more information” is a double sided coin. I’ve seen a lot of recent experiences of falling into the trap of over analysing in pursuit of making the most optimal choice. Sometimes it is obvious that a sub optimal decision is better than no decision or a severely delayed decision. In these cases, where action trumps inaction, we need to remind ourselves and our clients of the perils of inaction against the worthy ideal of more information.

    This can be modelled much like an investment decision to get the “expected outcome”.

    Let’s say current efficiency of some operation is 60%. We want to make a decision to improve efficiency. We can implement one now, with lack of certainty, or we can wait a year and make the best decision.

    Let’s say a timely decision has 40% chance of being sub optimal but better, getting a 75% efficiency, a 40% chance of being optimal or near optimal, getting 85% efficiency, and 20% chance of being a dud or no improvement, which with costs we put the efficiency at a slightly decreased 55%.

    The expected outcome is 0.4 *.75 + 0.4 * .85 + 0.2 *.55 = 75%.

    The exact numbers may be difficult and slightly unscientific to arrive at, but since in this case 75% is so much better than 60%, one can play around insert numbers that are clearly conservative to see whether the decision is still justified. This has to be weighed against the assumed certainty of making a optimal decision in a year, and costs, and a monetary value per % gain or loss in efficiency.

    It obviously depends (everything does, doesn’t it?), but where I work many operations suffer from losses due to indecision in pursuit of eventual perfection. In fact, risking a timely potential sub optimal decision can even be seen as part of the step to “getting more information”.

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Completely agree on the analysis paralysis. See that all the time. Too often inaction is mistaken as prudence. Completely logical approach – makes sense. As you do point out, it is often difficult to estimate expected benefits (75%) and probabilities (40%). That said, it’s a continuous improvement cycle – we are not only playing the game once. . instead it is multi-round, and you can constantly refine your benefits and probabilities. Thanks for the comment and your readership.

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