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What businesses need to learn from the year of upheaval

This article was originally published on

Whilst still struggling to understand the implications of these seismic events, I stumbled across an old university textbook of mine from the mid-1990s.

One chapter in particular caught my eye, on the topic of postmodernism. For the uninitiated, the best definition for this concept comes from the hilariously-named Frenchman Jean-François Lyotard. This heavyweight philosopher and sociologist defined this concept in the following terms – that postmodernism is best expressed as an 'incredulity towards metanarratives’.

Before you condemn him for talking pretentious nonsense, let’s simplify that line to make it easier.

  • Incredulity = disbelief

  • Metanarratives = an overarching account of events

    In a nutshell, Monsieur Lyotard says that throughout human history groups of people have attempted to define the entirety of human existence through the lens of a particular ideology. Notable examples would include: Christianity, Islam, Communism, Socialism, Thatcherism, and Capitalism. The list is long.

    Proponents of these ideas would suggest that everything around us can be absolutely explained by one particular ideological framework. Over time, wars of violence and words have raged over which ideology is correct, with terrible consequences.

    However, postmodernism neatly rejects the entire basis of every ideology. It suggests that no ideology is correct, and that human history is not a linear and straightforward process ('History' has been replaced by 'histories') and therefore no-one can claim a monopoly on the truth.

    Other parts of the world (for example, where Islam is the defining belief system) do not share this incredulity in metanarratives. It is one of the reasons why we struggle to understand fundamentalism because it requires such certainty of belief which we ourselves have rejected.

    Despite this, we in the West feel compelled, at the current time, to reject everything that the ruling orthodoxies tell us to do or think.

    Let’s take a few political examples:

  • For a generation we were told that in politics, it was only the economy which really mattered. If you win the economic competency argument, you win the overall battle. In the EU Referendum, this strategy failed miserably. People rejected this orthodoxy – many millions of Brits actively voted against their own economic security, seemingly on purpose. A Remain pollster told me that he had tested a key message on a focus group in the North of England which made clear that a vote to Leave could lead to the collapse of the FTSE-100. The unanimous response from the group? “Good.”

  • Jeremy Corbyn was widely assumed to be unable to secure the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015, beginning the campaign at odds of 100-1. This was primarily because it was an accepted fact that he was not capable of winning a General Election, which has been the point of Opposition politics since the beginning of time. However, his supporters have rejected the orthodoxy that ‘winning’ is the point of party politics. They don’t care if they lose, because for them winning is an elitist activity which requires compromise.

  • Donald Trump became President by rejecting numerous orthodoxies in US politics. People would not vote for someone so far removed from the mainstream party system. They could not win without campaign donations. They would not support a candidate who had not ‘tested’ their messaging in focus groups. They would not support someone with outspoken views on race in a multi-ethnic country. Well, they did.

  • Even in the business world, we have seen evidence of the public 's postmodern attitudes towards bad corporate behaviour. Whilst we get excited about the latest PR crisis facing major companies such as PepsiCo, VW or Google, the reality is that consumers continue to purchase and use their respective products. In the latter's case, in the most postmodern moment of all, we use its own search platform to discover for ourselves what it is alleged to have done wrong.

    The events of last year therefore begin to make better sense when viewed as the predictable result of the rapid rise of postmodern thought in the West.

    In terms of politics, we should expect this pattern to continue in forthcoming elections (as we are currently seeing in France), and we need to accept that those of us who have made a career in professional politics may be at a disadvantage in trying to predict what happens next.

    However, more crucially, in terms of business, the metanarratives you tell about your company or your sector may need to be entirely rewritten. It is no longer enough to tell a linear story about your business, with financial calendar announcements and annual reports. The starting position for members of the public is to immediately reject and distrust formal, dry announcements. The successful companies are those who approach communications differently, in a way which understands the unpredictable attitudes which are so often being expressed.