I recently read a paper by friend, psychologist and business and elite sports coach Tim O’Brien (@Doctob), about the tendency today to move away from ambiguity and complexity towards what he calls A or B thinking, and why this is a bad thing.
His article was written in the context of the hedge fund sector, and how A or B thinking restricts the performance both of funds and the individual managers themselves. He explains that to regard a hedge fund manager for example as either risk averse or risk tolerant is to miss the point in the real world, which is messy, ambiguous and complex. (You can read the article in the September 2010 issue of The Hedge Fund Journal.)
Moving away from hedge funds to public relations and corporate communications, the world in which most of us operate is no less ambiguous, complex and messy. There is rarely an opinion or a position that is absolute, and it’s never the case that person or option A is always right and person or option B is always wrong.
By choosing A or B is to oversimplify things. Of course I’m going to say that my product is better than my competitor’s, that my party’s policies are superior to the opposing party’s, and so on.
Public relations programmes, making tangible and real the art of having conversations with people who are important to you, can accommodate ambiguity and complexity, and work best when they do.
The days of simply replicating factual data are disappearing (if they haven’t gone already). There’s a big difference between product marketing and sales (even of a service) and establishing a position, creating a message, explaining a decision, setting a context, having a debate, arguing your corner.
And there’s never an end point, only a continuum.
So public relations should work hard to make its own case (there’s that complexity again) to play a much greater part in the strategic management of ambiguity.
And the communications elements must be part of the management decisions that any organization makes. Management should consider the complexity and ambiguity of the situation, acknowledge the existence of both, define the boundaries of both, and turn to professional colleagues or consultants to consider the communications options and opportunities.
Then create the plan and deliver it. Don’t be thrown by the ambiguous responses. Adjust and refine as you go.
Above all else, engage in conversations. Just don’t try either A or B thinking.
(Read Tim O’Brien’s paper even if you’re not a hedge fund manager. He’s one of the few business coaches that start from the empirical psychology that underpins most of our behaviour, and therefore influences our performance in business or in sport.)