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“And the trilobite grew eyes – on stalks!”: The power of evolutionary arms races in communication

Some 400 million years ago, the trilobite was king of the seas. There were more than 5000 different species, ranging in size from just a millimetres to more than 70cm. What makes the trilobites particularly remarkable was the arms race at play throughout their history on earth?

Evolutionary arms races account for nature’s spectacularly advanced eye, ear and protection engineering. Sharper teeth beget stronger shells; predator speed beget even faster escapes; poisons beget genetic resistances. For the trilobites, this meant rapid development of eyes, of spines, of speed and the ability to roll up into a ball like the woodlouse. The Asphus trilobite grew brilliant eyes on stalks so it could see above the sediment in which it fed. The trilobite thrived because of this rapid arms race evolution with its predators and its meal.

Fascinating, but what has this to do with communication?

The arms race in external communications

In enterprise external communication, there’s a spectacular arms race at play. Media organisations, hungry for their story, get their prey by chasing down those in media relations for the information, by listening to customers or doing their own research. Financial analysts will forensically decipher the numbers presented by CEOs and CFOs and seek evidence of new products or business failure.

The evolutionary arms race response? Businesses deploy countless escalations to ensure they hold control. Media training ensures that strict public messaging lines are adhered too even when the strongest pressure is exerted. Businesses write tighter guidelines on what they will share and they may even attempt to hide bad news published through other channels. Social media snooping allows them to listen to the noise and react as needed.

This predator – prey evolution has meant that both sides are better at the job that they do. The arms race has heightened skill sets, tool sets and expectations. For external comms, the arms race is working.

Be brave: stimulate an arms race for internal comms

The arms race that has helped raise standards on both sides in external communications doesn’t exist for internal communication. Employees don’t place the same challenges on internal communicators as the media do on external comms teams. Employees simply ignore poor communications, they don’t bite back or go in for the reactive kill.

Where’s the impetus for improvement? How do we generate the all powerful arms race and generate communications “on stalks!” ?

Internally, we need to be brave and look for ways to stimulate our own communications arms race to push us. One such brave route is to provide alternative channels for employees to communicate, such as enterprise social networks. Here, folks can create, share and comment on their own news and communications and if these channels become better used, more useful and more popular than the official channels, it’ll help develop a powerful arms race to the top. The risks are self-evident and not to be ignored, but this stimulus would help identify materials that resonate, writing styles that appeal and possibly bespoke audience groups.

We should also work harder on evidencing the efficacy of our work. When we communicate, we do so for a reason and so we must look for evidence that it worked.  Ask for employee feedback – if it didn’t work, figure out why and improve.

The fossil record is full of examples of short-lived evolutionary ideas that we unsuccessful. Like the trilobites, we need to be more innovative: try some ideas to see if they work and build the internal comms armoury.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” 
― Thomas A. Edison