With Strategy, the Medium is the Message

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Note: This is my latest in a series of posts on innovation theory inspired by the philosophy of Levi Bryant.

Marshall McLuhan, with his famous quote, “the medium is the message,” makes the point that the content of a message is less significant than the medium used.

McLuhan’s principle has profound implications for how to run a company. But first, let’s delve into the concept at play.

To illustrate, consider two parallel societies. Both societies have the same laws. In one of the societies, the laws are only spoken by the leader and shared verbally from citizen to citizen. In the other society, the leader speaks the laws but they’re also inscribed on walls and on paper.

In both societies, the content of the laws are the same but the media Is different. One uses speech and the other uses writing.

The difference in media has a profound impact. Through his research into societies with spoken versus written laws, the anthropologist Jean-Pierre Vernant concluded that the “[s]etting [laws] down [in writing] not only ensured their permanence and stability; it also removed them from the private authority of the [ruler], whose function was to ‘speak’ the law” (as quoted by Levi Bryant in Onto-Cartography).

The sound waves of speech can only travel so far. Its content transforms from one listener to the next and fades away in memory. Without inscription, a spoken law is a commandment that the leader can easily alter with minimal accountability. The leader issuing laws is the lone authority on what the law actually is.

When a law is written down, in contrast, it takes on an existence independent of the leader who uttered it. This leader can still change the law, but they must reconcile modifications with the law in its previous form. Bryant explains:

… insofar as the law has been inscribed or written down, it takes on an objective value that rescues it from the whim of the ruler. In being inscribed, the law becomes a thing or machine in its own right rather than a command of the ruler. To be sure, the law written down issued from the ruler, but in its inscription on parchment or the wall of a temple, it now takes on an alien existence, an independent existence, that the ruler himself must contend with. Today he might be inclined to enact a different law, but because his “speech” lingers in the form of the written document, the ruler now finds that he must mesh what he said last year with what he wishes to decree today. Indeed, not only must he contend with what he said last year, but he must also contend with what previous rulers inscribed.

Written laws can be copied and proliferated without changes to the content. While interpretations of the law differ for individuals, the words themselves aren’t subject to the game of telephone.

Consequently, societies with written laws can scale across larger geographical areas than societies with only spoken law. It is not the laws themselves that facilitate the scale but the medium in which the laws are communicated. This is what McLuhan means by “the medium is the message.”

You can apply McLuhan’s principle to corporate communication. While it’s tempting for leaders to focus foremost on creating the right strategy, the mediums they use to communicate strategy are more important than the strategies themselves.

Strategic direction must constantly shift with signal from the real world. A leader’s pivots risk losing the confidence of the team. By writing down and sharing the rationale behind a shift, a leader makes the new strategy easily transferable and projects sound reasoning throughout the company. When strategy changes are only discussed verbally, in contrast, the intent can be lost in translation leaving contributors feeling jerked around by the whims of management.

Just as lack of written law inhibits a society’s scale, lack of written strategy stifles startup growth.

More companies, on the growth path, are following Google and The Gates Foundation in using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). OKRs are a framework where teams and individuals define their goals and measurable criteria indicating progress. OKRs are captured in spreadsheets or tools to be shared openly with the company at large.

The rise of the OKR model demonstrates that more companies recognize that the medium is the message. Brilliant strategies raining down from the executive team are insufficient for success as teams scale. Instead, a culture of open, stable, and written strategy is required to navigate an evolving landscape.

My project, Double-Loop, is another application of McLuhan’s principle. Double-Loop creates the expectation that product developers explain the hypotheses of their launches and loop back to examine the results relative to the original goal. The result is a culture of scientific product development. Double-Loop reflects that the mediums you use to communicate your product ideas are more important than the ideas themselves.

Mediums, in McLuhan’s sense, go beyond what you might traditionally think of as a medium. Levi Bryant explains:

We can see just how broadly McLuhan expands the concept of media, giving it a much deeper ontological significance than it is often taken to have. Often when we think of media we immediately think of things such as newspapers, television, music, etc. While these are indeed examples of media, McLuhan expands the notion to include everything from forks to seeing eye dogs. McLuhan thus recovers the Latinate sense of media as medius, denoting “intermediary.” A medium is an intermediary that relates one thing to another. Thus, for McLuhan, a medium does not so much refer to a particular medium of communication such as speech, sign-language, radio, television, writing, or smoke-signals – though all of these things are included in his theory of media – but rather places emphasis on both the materiality of media and the specific nature of that materiality, as well as the manner in which these media extend and amplify our sense-organs.

Bryant goes even further than McLuhan in arguing that machines can be mediums for other non-humans machines. In this sense, for example, your analytics systems are mediums for your website.

McLuhan and Bryant’s broad understanding of media is a valuable lens for understanding how a company’s systems and tools profoundly impact long-term success. What your company is doing at one moment is less important than the mediums its selected to structure the behavior of multiple generations of employees.

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