Dichotomous Thinking as a Scrum Master

Posted By - Geoff Watts


It was pointed out to me recently that I had fallen back into an old dysfunctional thought pattern again and it was a really useful insight for me.

I was setting myself goals for the growth and development of my new venture Agile Mastery Institute and was tending to think of them as success or failure, win or lose, all or nothing.

This type of thinking is called dichotomous thinking.

What is Dichotomous Thinking?

“Dichotomous thinking” is a psychological term that refers to the process of seeing things in either black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. It is a type of cognitive bias that can negatively affect how we make decisions.

It’s arguably a self-defence mechanism because simplifying things down to a binary format reduces our cognitive load and ambiguity. However, it’s a form of lazy thinking that can cause a lot of problems as it is usually an oversimplification. For example, “Either we do it this way or we do it that way.”


While dichotomous thinking can be helpful in some situations (e.g., when making a spur-of-the-moment decision), it can be dangerous when applied to leadership because it is used as a way to bypass critical thinking and limits your ability to see new situations clearly.

Dichotomous thinking is very common in the software industry and being aware of when we, or our colleagues, are thinking dichotomously can be really helpful to us as a Scrum Master. Not least because dichotomous thinking can prevent us from being able to manage change effectively.

Impact on Change Management

If we see things dichotomously then we may really struggle to see iterative, incremental ways of making changes. We may fall into the trap of “it’s got to be done just like this or there’s no point”.

One type of dichotomous thinking I see a lot in organizations that are new to Scrum is that they tend to view projects and situations as either “being done by the book” or “not being done right”; the project is either a success or a failure.

If an organization falls into this trap, it can cause them to reject valuable practices like continuous integration and automated testing because they don’t fit into the “being done by the book” category. To avoid falling into dichotomous thinking, we need to take a more balanced view of situations.

We need to look at all of our options and determine which ones will help us achieve our goals while also considering whether or not they fit with the organization’s culture or past practices.

Dichotomous Thinking as a Scrum Master

If you are a Scrum Master, you should try to avoid dichotomous thinking and instead look at problems and situations from all angles so that you can make the best decision possible. If a Scrum Master is caught up in dichotomous thinking, he or she might miss important details or fail to see things from other points of view.

For example, a Scrum Master may be very concerned about meeting deadlines, but fail to see how this might negatively impact the quality of the final product. This can lead to a false dichotomy where the Scrum Master decides that they must choose between meeting deadlines and ensuring quality, when there are in fact other options available (e. g., hiring more developers).


Scrum Masters can equally take an “all or nothing” approach when it comes to Scrum. I’ve seen Scrum Masters so wedded to the Scrum framework that they feel Scrum has to be implemented so rigidly that it gets people’s backs up.

A Scrum Master needs to help the Scrum team move away from dichotomous thinking so the team feels more agency and a sense of possibility. I’ve found that using Socratic questioning and encouraging the Scrum team to generate multiple solutions can help them move away from dichotomous thinking.

Examples of Shifting Dichotomous Thinking

“We need to do this or that” becomes “What are other ways we could do this?”

“It’s either going to be done by this date or it won’t be done at all” becomes “What could we achieve by this date and manage the downside risk?”

“We’re going to do it this way or we’re going to fail” becomes “What could we do to serve the higher level goal here?”

I’ve also found that asking the team what would happen if they weren’t successful in implementing their plan can often help them see the downsides of dichotomous thinking. The key here is asking questions that force the Scrum team members to think about the situation in a more nuanced way and consider multiple ideas.

Reduce Dichotomous Thinking

Dichotomous thinking is a natural human tendency and it’s quite easy to slip into. Sure, there may be benefits now and again (either it’s “done” or it’s “not done”) but the problem with dichotomous thinking is that it limits your options. It stops you from being creative, causing you to become too entrenched in your thinking and missing out on a lot of opportunities.

Step 1: Notice it

The first thing to do is try to spot dichotomous thinking in yourself and others. Keep your ears out for the words “either/or”, “always” and “never” or when there are only two options on the table.

Encourage others in the team to become more aware of the language we use as that’s a good indication of our thought patterns.

Step 2: Try Dialectical Thinking

One way you can move away from dichotomous thinking is by trying dialectical thinking. Dialectical thinking is the opposite of dichotomous thinking so it involves seeing things as a matter of degree rather than as all or nothing.

“Dialectical thinking refers to the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and to arrive at the most economical and reasonable reconciliation of seemingly contradictory information and postures. Dialectical thinking is a form of analytical reasoning that pursues knowledge and truth as long as there are questions and conflicts.”

– Professor Anthony V. Manzo of UMKC

In my book Scrum Mastery I’ve written about encouraging divergent thinking in Scrum teams by using The Rule of Seven. This was first explained to me by actor and author Lee Devin, who had witnessed it from a team at Boeing. With this technique, the team agrees that they won’t make any decision until they have thought of at least seven different alternative solutions.

Something like the Liberating Structure “15% Solutions” could also be helpful.

Step 3: Try Coaching Questions

Another way to move away from dichotomous thinking is by asking coaching questions (also known as solution focused questions). Coaching questions are open ended and they are used to explore the problem rather than to find a solution.

When using coaching questions it should become clear that the world isn’t all black or white, but rather, there are shades of grey in everything we do.

Step 4: Replace Judgement With Curiosity

One of my favourite mantras I remind myself to employ is: “It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just interesting.”

One common technique to reduce dichotomous thinking is to embrace “cognitive dissonance”. Rather than judging a situation or outcome is either good or bad, instead view that thing as both good AND bad.

For example, taking on and completing 10 Product Backlog Items in a sprint can be both good (we accomplished a lot) and bad (we could possibly have done more). By being able to see multiple, seemingly contradictory truths as simultaneously valid it helps us and those around us be more creative and positive.

If you want to become more effective as a Scrum Master then work on moving away from dichotomous thinking and towards dialectical thinking. If you practice this then it will help you be more open-minded and creative, which will make your job much easier.

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