The Also/Or Dilemma

http://rework.fm is the result of OR, not ALSO.

For three years, we wrote, produced, recorded, and published a podcast called The Distance. Over nearly 60 episodes, we told stories about small private companies that had been in business for 25 years or more. The premise was that there’s a lot to learn from businesses that have figured out how to not go out of business. And there was.

Then, earlier this year, while The Distance was still going strong, we had an idea for another podcast focused more broadly on how to run a better business. One with our own point of view, not just other people’s stories.

Awesome — time to launch another podcast! Wait, not so fast. First we had to make a choice: We could continue doing The Distance and start a new podcast. This would mean running two podcasts. Or we could stop running The Distance and start a new podcast. This would mean running just one podcast.

This is a scenario many companies confront. I call it “also/or.” These two seemingly innocent words determine wildly different outcomes.

Most companies, products, and services start out simply. It’s rare that the first version of something is more complicated than the second.

But once a company starts saying yes to one good idea after another, it starts accumulating scars. And scars they are. When companies decide to do something and it works, it usually doesn’t go away. Ideas turn permanent. Before you know it, things aren’t so simple any more.

Saying yes to more and more good ideas without dumping some of the earlier commitments invariably leads to a place of compounding complexity. Too many good ideas eventually combine to make one big bad idea.

You see this all over software today. Setting after setting, preference after preference. Each one is an example of a company’s refusing to make a choice and offloading the decision to the customer. It’s sold as customization, but it’s often just one “also” after another.

By forcing a tradeoff on every new “yes,” you corner yourself into considering the value of something. And only once you value a thing accordingly can you make a better decision about what is worth pursuing. It requires you to reconsider: Is this still worth doing? Would we be better off doing something else? That’s a healthy exercise from time to time. The true test of how bad you want something is whether you’re willing to give up something else to make room.

So what did we end up doing?

The choice wasn’t obvious. It’s easy to end something that’s a clear failure. It’s much harder to end something that’s doing fine or better. The Distance was doing well. According to the number of weekly downloads and industry data, it was in the top 10 to 15 percent of all podcasts.

We debated it internally, and we chose “or.” Ultimately, we felt The Distance had had a great run, and that ending it on our own terms meant we could make room for something new.

For the new podcast, called REWORK, we didn’t have to hire more people, increase the size of the crew, or attract audiences for two different podcasts. We’ve released a half-dozen episodes, and we’ve already more than doubled the audience we got for The Distance. And it’s growing fast.

The next time you’re faced with this kind of decision, stop and think about the language. Instead of saying “Yes, we’ll do that also,” you have to practice saying “Sure, we can do that instead.” “Or” always forces a choice, and that’s a good thing.

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