Dilemma: a good word to use (or not)?

In some ways, the word "dilemma" might seem strange to use in business. You find dilemmas a lot in novels and plays ("To be or not to be....", says Hamlet). They suggest not only difficult choices, but also an inability to make decisions - not a good position for managers to get into.

However, business frequently presents challenging situations in which there appear to be very contradictory alternatives. For example, should an organisation, weighing the costs and benefits of each, clearly:
- Emphasise short term performance or longer term potential
- Focus on control of expenses or maximisation of revenues
- Promote innovation or minimise risks

The question therefore (going back to Hamlet) is how to reach a decision when the choices are not particularly attractive, in part because of the absolute level of associated costs, including so-called "opportunity costs". The English expression is "the horns of a dilemma" and we don't want to be stuck on it for too long.

Perhaps the answer is that, by clearly stating the dilemma and the extreme possibilities, which no one really wants to accept, we're led to look for compromises. This requires reconciliation of the seemingly conflicting alternatives - rather than jumping one way or the other or just doing nothing. So recognising the elements of something called a dilemma is surely helpful. We think it's an idea (and a word) worth using.


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