March 2024

It was a long time until I knew what a ‘rubric’ was, but it seems the most helpful word to use here. When making decisions or considering options, the rubric I use is the idea of extremes for scoring a given decision against others.

What do I mean by this? Well, take a situation where you need to make a decision. I will use the example of a founder of a social media platform, who has to decide about the level of free speech.

What a normal founder is likely trying to achieve is (even if they don’t realise it) - a middleground. Why? Extremes.

If users joined their platform and contributed absolutely zero, nothing - well, the platform has no reason to exist. Conversely, If users who joined only wrote incomprehensible nonsense, for example every message was something like “gsgshsj” repeated, this also renders their platform pretty unhelpful for all, and the platform may need to reconsider its existence.

So we have two extreme points - zero, and garbage. What is acceptable between those two? That can be difficult to decide, but at least it is clear that a) users must be able to contribute something and b) if what they contribute is incromprehensible, it is actually detrimental to the platform.

This post is not a discussion of what that “acceptable” is in the above case, but hopefully it does help illustrate that a lot of decisions at the very least have two poles within which one can work within. This is often especially helpful when making decisions with other people, where this rubrick can help lay out the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Living in a city like Singapore starts to help redefine extremes. Let’s take the recent legalisation of cannabis in various nations. The extreme of banning it is that, in theory, nobody uses cannabis. The extreme on the other side is that every single citizen does indeed use it. Reality of course suggests that even if it is banned, there will be people that enjoy/want/need a use for a substance and find a way to make that happen. On the other side, it is very unlikely every citizen will indeed use it. However of the two extremes, which is most likely to maintain a productive nation where productivity is arguably placed above all else? If it is hard to police / regulate / agree on a middle ground, perhaps an extreme based on the ultimate goal of a nation, is the answer until further notice.

Let’s take a more innocuous example. You are travelling on holiday to a cold climate, do you need to buy new clothes? Well, if you only own t-shirts and shorts, and you buy nothing additional, the extreme case is that you will likely have a very unpleasant time. On the other side, you could purchase some kind of hyper-insulating suit probably designed for space, at vast expense. So one of the extremes dictates “I do actually need to buy some new clothes, or I will get hypothermia” and on the other side, “there is clearly a limit somewhere as to the amount of insulation I require and money I should spend on this”.

In the above example, those that refuse to spend money on new clothes, might have considered extremes before booking that holiday to the north pole.

A final example in the realms of business - hiring. This one is perhaps the most interesting as virtually everyone needs to be hired (whether by a company, or merely deliver a product to a customer) or in fact hire someone for their own or their employer’s business.

Let’s try with extremes for a solo small business owner of a flower shop. The shop is successful and pays for a very ok life for me (the owner) and my family. Should I hire an employee?

On the one hand, the extreme of not hiring anyone is that the limits (e.g. financial) of the business are the time that I (the owner) is willing to put into the business. The business will end when I can no longer - or are willing to continue - this business. The business must also be closed on a given day if I am sick, or need some rest. On the other extreme, if I hire thirty people tomorrow, their salaries will make us bankrupt in a matter of days based on the money in the bank and the very high unlikelihood they can bring in 30x revenue in the ensuing days (this is not even accounting for the time and effort needed to hire these people, taking time away from running a successful flower shop).

So there is something in the middle. I consider the middle if any of the outcomes of the ‘hire nobody’ extreme are not acceptable to me. Equally, if those scenarios are acceptable, do I need to hire anyone? On that basis, the decision to hire is just a function of money wanting to be made and the desired flexibility of my time. There is actually no extreme on the side of ‘not hiring’ in the sense it may totally work for your business, unlike some other extremes that are game over. There is absolutely an existential extreme on the other side (ie hiring 30 people tomorrow) that will put you out of business.

Asking yourself “where is the limit” can help define these extremes. In the above example, hiring one million employees tomorrow is clearly not feasible, so using that as the extreme is not very helpful. Hiring one employee probably is feasible but, could it also be two, or even three?

So, there is a limit, somewhere. That limit can help you define the extremes on either side (the ‘limit’ on the other side is one employee, on the basis a business is very unlikely to function with zero people).

Does AI now change the definitions of the extremes outlined above? Perhaps. But that is a topic for another day.

The next time that you need to make a decision, try and figure out the two extremes first. It may help you arrive at your answer faster than you expected. When neither extreme is acceptable, because both extremes can pose an existential threat to the situation, it can greatly help with decision-making. Especially when making decisions with others who may have a different point of view, extremes can help you both/all find a faster acceptable solution in the wide middle ground.

it is 2024