Pierre, or the Ambiguities

Melville’s gothic novel of 1852 “Pierre or the Ambiguities” is a mirror image of the classic 19th century framework in which early adversity is overcome to produce a happy ending.  In Pierre, the author creates a well-born happy hero each of whose decisions reduces his circumstances until the story final unravels with the death in destitution of almost all the lead characters.  At every step of the way, Pierre makes the wrong choice.

 I was reminded of this dark tale by a conversation with Howard Sherman, president of business communications specialist Doremus, about the current business environment.  Howard feels that we are in for an extended period of ambiguity, in which the right path forward will remain exceedingly obscure.  He proposes that rather than being paralyzed by this ambiguity, we need to learn how to manage ambiguity as an asset, starting many initiatives in parallel, giving ourselves multiple possibilities and choices.  Related to the idea of “fast failure,” exploiting ambiguities requires the ability to kill off initiatives that appear to be dead ends and doubling down nimbly on those that appear to be succeeding, all the while continuing to start new ones.

 I liked this lexicon because it supports the idea that social media enable companies to start many different “conversations” (we need a new word here) to see which ones gain the most traction with target audiences.  By avoiding the most flagrant conflicts of tone or content, companies can benefit from experimenting with many different voices.  Over time, stakeholders will get used to the multiple personalities of their favorite brands, even welcome the freshness of the diversity in comparison to the classic patina of the traditional corporate voice.  Brand integrity has its place, but in a world of ambiguity it can’t be an excuse for paralysis.


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