The benefits of taking things too far

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Well, the latest Gillette ad is certainly causing quite the stir.

Advertising isn’t afraid of incorporating a little controversy and shock value in their messaging, and this campaign combines plenty of both.

Regardless of whether you agree with it or even like it, it raises an interesting question:

How far is far enough?

From the suffragettes to Sea Shepherd — burning bras, girdles and high heels; standing in front of tanks; ramming whaling boats — it’s easy to write these off as crazy acts done by crazy people.

In truth, we need more of Steve Jobs’ crazy ones.

Because, on a continuum from tame to batshit insane, it’s impossible for any real change to happen without a few loose units on the fringes bringing awareness to an issue. Their outrageous behaviour makes lesser acts of defiance acceptable for milder folk.

This is equally relevant to leadership.

Organisations tend to glorify the idea of disruption, innovation and change. Yet, few leaders have the appetite for doing what it actually takes.

Not that you can blame them. There are few environments where risk is less tolerable than the business world. Doing things differently here often carries a worse stigma than chaining yourself to a tree in front of chainsaws.

Pushing boundaries means challenging the status quo, and there are plenty of people in the workplace (at all levels) very comfortable luxuriating in the safety of mediocrity. And given that we’re social creatures who use our peers as a yardstick for our own behaviours and beliefs, it can be incredibly difficult to shake things up.

Ahh, but for the bold and pioneering leader — how do we push our ideas and communication far enough to make a real difference?

The necessity of commitment

Extremism carries the wrong connotations, so let’s call it a commitment. A willingness to take it as far as required, whatever it takes.

Comedians frequently push jokes too far, because falling in the middle ground is a death sentence for a joke. It frequently means pushing through a punishing period of awkwardness, but there’s less consequence and greater reward for commitment.

Producing an effective piece of communication is very different to producing a safe piece of communication. Gaining the attention of certain audiences often means taking a very different approach to typical corporate communications.

It might mean using colloquial language that’s perfectly natural at home, yet feels risky carried into the workplace. It might mean using a palette that has exactly the right colour psychology, yet agitates corporate communications. It might mean using shock or surprise to capture attention. It might mean using humour. It might mean using emotions in an environment where feelings are typically stifled.

The misdirection of feedback

There are few ways to kill a groundbreaking idea more quickly or effectively than putting it to a committee or asking for feedback.

So why do we do it?

It generally comes down to one of three intentions.

Our intention is to gain real world feedback to refine the idea and make it more effective

To make an idea as effective as possible means ensuring it connects with the intended audience, but it isn’t as simple as just asking someone in that segment what they think. Focus groups, once the staple of market research, have been proven to be woefully ineffectual at actually providing accurate feedback or direction. There are simply too many social dynamics at play, especially at work.

Instead of talking specifically about an idea, we need to thoroughly understand the people we’re communicating with or designing an experience for. What drives them? What interests them? What language connects with them? Casual conversations and persona exercises are the ideal way to answer these questions.

Our intention is to promote buy-in from teams, peers or exec under the guise of feedback or collaboration

Of all the intentions, this is the most fraught.

Presenting a resolved idea at the end of a project guarantees nitpicking over irrelevant detail as everyone cocks their leg on the proverbial tree. Conversely, asking everyone’s opinion on absolutely everything just dilutes the idea and slows progress to a crawl.

Instead, one or two carefully considered and facilitated workshops with key stakeholders in the early stages of a project is often the best compromise. It’s essential that these sessions are framed correctly, helping people understand their contribution is valued, but not every idea will be implemented. Then, the democracy is over and the dictatorship begins.

Our intention is to seek validation or confidence

Producing anything different can be incredibly unnerving. It’s only human to seek validation, yet couching it in a request for feedback will almost undoubtedly deliver the exact opposite of what we hope to hear.

Ask for feedback, and you can be damn sure people will try their best to help, often with limited knowledge of the audience or context for what we’re trying to achieve. This means that feedback tends to be purely subjective; well-meaning, certainly, but mostly irrelevant and unlikely to accomplish more than furthering self doubt.

Instead, leaders should embrace the discomfort — a fear that only comes from producing truly pioneering work.

Or, be brutally honest in declaring our intentions. We have a good friend with whom we preface all feedback bids with ‘I’m seeking feedback’ or ‘I’m seeking validation’ so the other can respond accordingly. It’s amazing the difference that simple acknowledgement makes to the resulting conversation.