“No one can possibly give us more service than by showing us what is wrong with what we think or do; and the bigger the fault, the bigger the improvement made possible by its revelation.”
Bryan Magee, Philosophy and the Real World
Have you ever wondered how washing powder is made? Of course you have, silly question. Well, the highly simplified version is that liquid detergent is pumped through a nozzle at very high pressure to create a spray. The spray then dries, and turns to powder.
As the economist Tim Harford explains, this nozzle was causing problems at Unilever’s factory near Liverpool. The granularity of the powder was inconsistent and it kept blocking. So they called in the experts to fix it.
The experts in question were a team of scientists who set about applying the laws of mathematics and physics to design the perfect nozzle. After numerous discussions, calculations and meetings, they unveiled their new design.
It didn’t work.
The granularity of the powder was still inconsistent and the nozzle still kept blocking.
So Unilever turned to their team of biologists for help. The biologists took a different approach to the mathematicians and physicists. Instead of trying to come up with the perfect design by working it out themselves, they employed the powers of evolution. They set up a process of variation and selection, or trial and error, to solve the problem.
They started with the nozzle in its original form:
They then created ten variations of the nozzle, all with slight random changes to the original. They tried all ten variations and kept the one that worked best. Then they made ten variations of that nozzle, and again kept the one that worked best. Ten more variations and so on. They repeated this process 45 times. What they ended up with was one extremely efficient (and very strange-looking) nozzle:
They had no idea why it worked so well, but it did.
The biologists had succeeded where the mathematicians and physicists had failed. Why? Because the world is far more complex than we realise, and trying to solve a complex problem just by thinking it through is not the most effective method. We cannot possibly take everything into account. We will make mistakes, and we need to embrace those mistakes and learn from them. In a complex world the most effective method is to take a number of options, try them out and choose what works best.
Therefore, rather than focusing only on expertise, we should also focus on effective feedback systems.
The Unilever example is a great illustration of the power of trial and error, but in reality few business problems are solved purely from testing random variations. Instead, they are best approached through a combination of “top-down” expert thinking and “bottom-up” trial and error – that is, combining existing opinions and assumptions with a system of feedback and adjustment.
Corporate communications, being a complex field, will benefit from the same approach. There are plenty of expert opinions in the field, but what is the most efficient system of feedback and adjustment?
The answer is media training.
An effective media training course involves a number of spokespeople being questioned by experienced journalists. The answers are recorded and the journalists/trainers give feedback on these answers. The process is repeated several times.
Every answer given by every spokesperson is a piece of corporate communication being put to the test. They are shown what works and what doesn’t, and they adapt accordingly.
By the end of the training, through this process of trial and error, the quality of their responses will have evolved significantly.
This is why the best media training offers a lot more than simply training your spokespeople to “handle media interviews”. Done properly, it can be the perfect way to test and perfect your messages, in a safe environment with real journalists.
You can then be absolutely sure that you’re communicating the right messages to the media and wider public in the most effective way.
“If we are operating in an environment without meaningful feedback, we can’t improve. We must institutionalise access to the ‘error signal’… Enlightened training environments maximise the quantity and quality of feedback, thus increasing the speed of adaptation.”
Matthew Syed, Black Box Thinking