What if there is no Third Alternative?

When faced with a choice between “bad” and “worse,” I always found myself looking for a third alternative.  Over time, I came to realize that an important part of strategy was finding a way to “win” when the only alternatives seemed to guarantee you were going to “lose.”

Many years ago, I remember walking into the office of my VP of Engineering and seeing “Good, Fast, Cheap:  Pick 2” written in the upper right corner of his chalk board.  While clever, it was a maxim I simply couldn’t accept.  Instead I found myself looking for tools, tricks, and alternate approaches that would allow us to capture all three at once.

It’s a “Strategy Thing”

Being able to tease alternatives out of seemingly nothing is a strategist’s skill.  One of my former bosses was particularly good at it, capable of looking at any issue or problem from multiple perspectives and coming up with an alternative that at least minimized the damage.

I remember one incident where I was dealing with the need to take away territory from a particularly stubborn distributor (never an easy problem to solve), and after a few minutes of thought came up with a clever way to convince the distributor to accept our demands.

This boss was particularly gifted when it came to finding third alternatives, and I made it a point to study how he did it.  Seeing the problem from all perspectives is an important element, but there is also an intuitive leap that not everyone is capable of making.  Fortunately, I was able to perform that part of the technique, and eventually I, too, became skilled in developing third alternatives.  I consider this ability to be an essential skill for anyone that wants to claim the title of “strategist.”

Is there always a way?

Some may argue there is always a winning alternative, but I haven’t found that to be the case.

When confronted with several years of excess inventory at one of my manufacturing plants, I couldn’t come up with a way to disguise, sell, convert, or otherwise dispose of the inventory in a pain-free fashion.  Ultimately, the decision came down to a choice between fessing up to the problem, or lying about it.  I took my lumps and didn’t look back.

In another example, I inherited a capital project where the justification was a complete work of fiction.  I couldn’t come up with any way to make that particular “sow’s ear” into a “silk purse.”  In the end, I had to tell the boss that there was simply no way the financials would look anything like the original project.  While I felt like I’d somehow “failed,” in retrospect I realize there was simply no way out of this problem – one that wasn’t even my own creation.

Is it really that bad, or is it just me?

One of the tougher things for many strategists to do is to recognize when it is time to give up looking for that magical third alternative, and simply make a decision.  I’ve noticed this seems to be particularly true for those that are skilled at finding alternatives.  It’s as if they assume that by delaying the decision, something will come up that will provide a better outcome.

Maybe it will, but most of the time things are likely to fester and become worse the problem drags on.

The same gifted boss who helped me out of my distribution conundrum, sat on a decision to kill a problem-ridden product development project for years.  In fact, he bounced management ownership of the project from one executive to another, almost certainly in the vain hope that a new set of eyes would result in “something” to save the day.

Some things are simply bad ideas, however.

Once I was assigned to the project, it took me less than a month to recognize the hopelessness of the situation and kill the project.


Spotting alternative approaches to difficult problems is a hallmark of a skilled strategist.  You have to be able to recognize, however, when to throw in the towel and deal with the reality of your situation rather than pining away for a miracle.

Develop your ability to come up with alternative solutions by watching an expert in action.  In time, you’ll begin to grasp how to look at situations from different perspectives.

But don’t put bad situations on hold in the hope that something will “come up.”  Better to pick from your bad choices, and get on with life.  26.2

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