14 01 2011

Confucius – business advice taken out of context? (photo: Reuters)

The explosion in the use of social media in recent years has brought with it a smaller but nonetheless significant explosion in the posting of famous and inspirational quotes by posters.

However the problem with these posts, regardless of the poster lies in the understanding of the reader. Via social media we are often communicating to larger audiences than we ever have before, more often than not without first learning valuable communication lessons.

One of these communication lessons is the knowledge that your message has two meanings; the one you thought you imparted and the one the receiver understood. It is important to bear this in mind before taking any inspirational quote at face value.

I recently read a post, quoting Confucius, which read; “when it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”

On the face of it, sound business advice. But is it? Is that the way Confucius meant his words to be used? Probably not, he wasn’t addressing the board of Microsoft or Sony, he lived in a different time when life was very different and his words should be taken in context.

In the business world the veracity of Confucius words would depend on a number of factors. I won’t list them all here, this is a blog not a book, but consider this. Your strategic goals can’t be reached so you follow the advice offered and adjust your action steps but have you considered other possible causes? For example, was the intelligence gathered via consultation and other research (which then informed your goals) accurate?

The goals might simply be wrong for any number of reasons and enormous resource could be wasted pursuing them. External factors outside our control can have massive impact on business if we fail to react accordingly by (for instance) changing our goals to fit a new reality.

Applied literally, the seller of VHS would still be adjusting actions aiming to achieve volume sales of a product superseded by DVD and Blue-ray. The manufacturer of horse-drawn carriages might even still be pursuing production goals without considering the impact of the invention and development of the motor car. In the real world, the truth is that following the words of the great man would rapidly have forced bankruptcy on these companies.

Context, the era from which the quote comes, an extract from a longer tract, double meaning and more can all cloud the value of an apparently great quote. And remember, even if you understand those potential pitfalls, your audience might not. Remember, your message has two meanings!

It might be useful to use another oft-repeated quote, this one from Lao Tzu, to give an example how, although the words may be correct, the different methods of understanding them and of applying them can have vastly different outcomes.

“Even the walk of a thousand miles can only begin with the first step.”

How true. However, before you rush off to take that first step, consider this; if that step is in the wrong direction the walk will be of far more than a thousand miles!

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2011

Twitter @cowanglobal



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