When I first became responsible for buying my own groceries, I remember standing in front of the peanut butter display at the supermarket, flabbergasted at the vast array of options. There had always been rigorous debate in my family over the merits of crunchy versus smooth, but until that moment I had not realized how I had been protected from the decision-making energy required to purchase a jar of this spread. As only a privileged, self-absorbed teenager can be, I was outraged at this sign of a world gone wrong. Did the world really need this many different types of peanut butter? Surely time spent on developing new peanut butter variants, as well as the time needed to make a purchasing decision, could be better spent?
Fast-forward an undisclosed number of years and I find myself thinking that maybe we need more of this spread of options (pun intended). Today, much of our world is framed in terms of two choices: crunchy or smooth, male or female, right or left, sustainability or progress, and more recently, pro-vaxx or anti-vaxx. One of my favorite humans, the recently passed actress Betty White, once said “I don’t know how people can get so anti-something.” Perhaps we have become this way because our options are so often framed as mutually exclusive.
Maybe what we need is a reframing of options. Instead of looking at questions as a dilemma (two options), maybe we should reframe as a tetralemma (four options). Full disclosure here: when I first heard about tetralemma, I thought the discussion was going to be about some cool rainforest mammal. But no, tetralemma, or catuskoti in Sanskrit, is a decision logic that has been around for a long time and has a strong foundation in Indian and Eastern thinking. The decision options suggested by tetralemma can be described as:
Using tetralemma can be a great way to re-think our options. This can be particularly important when faced with some of the big decisions faced within our professional lives in the aviation industry. If you are working in aviation, there is no doubt that you are working in an intense industry that has become even more stressful with the challenges of the last couple of years. Maybe you have heard a lot about the “Great Resignation,” and you find yourself humming that classic Clash tune under your breath as you make your daily commute: “should I stay or should I go now?” Instead of framing your choice as a dilemma, tetralemma can prompt you to consider if there are other alternatives:
We can also use tetralemma to improve our business decision-making. A similar decision for an organization might be whether to hire more staff as the aviation industry recovers from the pandemic. Instead of being a simple yes/no decision for a full-time hire, tetralemma may suggest considering job-share, internships, contract employees, or job redesign.
If you have worked in software or marketing, you are probably familiar with A/B testing. A/B testing is a method where two versions of a product or service are tested against each other to see which performs better. Tetralemma suggests that, while testing may be valid, a broader range of options could be considered:
Today, technology can also help in providing more options when it comes to decision-making. CAE offers optimization software, as part of its flight operations solutions, that allow airlines to consider multiple decision options at once. Airline planners can use CAEOptimize, a suite of applications that create optimization solutions for decisions like pairing and roster allocations. Unlike other optimization tools, CAEOptimize uses an algorithmic approach rather than sequential rules. So instead of comparing A against B, then A against C, then A against D and so on, CAEOptimize compares all possible combinations and permutations at once. I am not going to pretend that I understand how CAEOptimize does this: I just replace the word “algorithm” with the word “magic” and leave it at that.
But in the absence of a CAEOptimize application for our everyday decisions, maybe we can take advantage of tetralemma. Tetralemma is a simple tool that can help us avoid narrow-mindedness that leads to divisive thinking and sub-optimal decision-making. Next time you find yourself facing a difficult dilemma, give it a go. As counter intuitive as it might sound, expanding your dilemma to a tetralemma can help. Perhaps give it a go next time you are standing in front of the peanut butter display at the supermarket. Now if you will excuse me, I am off to have my toast and marmalade…
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