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Don’t ditch complexity in pursuit of clarity – we need both in sustainability

Don’t ditch complexity in pursuit of clarity – we need both in sustainability

Embracing nuance could be the fastest way for communicators to make a positive impact 

As a career communicator – I understand that clarity and action-orientated language are vital in driving behaviour change.

Having spent most of my career helping organisations build stakeholder trust and change regulatory landscapes around highly technical (environmental) or complex (supply chain) issues, I also understand the importance of resisting the temptation to over-simplify or over-claim.

When the changes required are systemic, complex and interconnected (without a single clear technological pathway) – like tackling climate change – we need to embrace both complexity AND simplicity. With thanks to Jim Collins for the Genius of And concept.

This means finding different ways to use our communications skills.

It seems that much corporate communications around sustainability is fearful. Taking a risk-averse approach with a focus on avoiding criticism or admission of failure*. This means much attention on goal setting with little detail provided on the challenges to be overcome or how each unique organisation is best placed to tackle them.

This has led to over-simplification and loss of nuance in messaging – the ASA ruling against Oatly is a great example of this being played out – as are campaigns to boycott palm oil and ban plastic.  Inadvertently we have created a communications shorthand which drives us to label people, things and processes as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (success or failure).

It’s self-perpetuating because businesses need to cut through a lot of noise to grab people’s attention and who wants to get into complexity when a simple, action-oriented story can be told? But, the more we, the public, are sold on simple ideas we just don’t get why the promised change is taking so long. Then we start to criticise brands for not meeting targets – leading to more defensive, over-simplified messaging.

This is why the move to ban plastic straws gained so much traction – easy to understand, easy to action – but little impact (unless you happened to be a plastic straw manufacturer). And limiting our response to climate change to what George Monbiot dubs Micro-Consumerist Bollocks (MCB) avoids digging deep into the systems which are supporting the destruction of our planet.

System change requires what it says on the tin – changing the system. This invariably means creating whole new systems. I love this from Buckminster Fuller “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Advocacy and precise communication are critical components in building the networks and alliances needed to support new models and systems.

In turn, these networks provide psychological safety for business leaders to dare greatly – and use communication bravely. This story is about asking for help and collaboration rather than broadcasting achievements, sharing failure as well as best practice and being honest about the size of ambition and shape of the problems (often this last is admitting that we don’t yet have the data to define and scope the problem).

Sharing information in this way helps stakeholders across the value chain become more comfortable with complex and messy realities and stop looking for silver bullets from others. They also gain guidance and role models for their own change work.

This is a new way of demonstrating leadership. By embracing complexity and uncertainty as a core part of the story (and not problems to be glossed over) we can turn our hands to inspiring and facilitating greater impact via:

  • collaboration to improve and support the new models and systems that deliver most positive impact (avoiding the creation of competing – and often incompatible – routes which add to the confusion and stasis)
  • education – building stakeholder acceptance and support for painstaking, time consuming and resource intensive work to scope challenges appropriately, collecting and tracking the data that shines a light on what still needs to be done (including how each group can play their part in this work)
  • healthy respect for failure and the ability to embrace and share it as evidence of the work and to help others get to where you are faster
  • generosity with success including open-source sharing to help others follow your lead.

These are some of the ways we can start a ripple effect, reaching more people and enabling thoughtful nuanced decisions and actions which will collectively have impact.

Translating complex and interconnected detail into content that resonates with different stakeholder groups is meaningful work, essential to making change happen both within and outside our organisations.

It’s still communications, it still needs easily accessible, actionable content but it is never simplistic and it’s never about looking ‘good’ (although that is often a by-product).

*A few months ago I posted about how viewing failure positively will be crucial to achieving the systemic change so urgently needed in both climate and social contexts.

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