Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 18:00 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 18:00 | SYDNEY

The high ground manoeuvre


Sam Roggeveen


23 July 2010 07:35

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) is wicked smart.

Here he is on Apple CEO Steve Jobs' use of a a public relations tactic that Adams calls 'the high ground manoeuvre', which could be applied to business, politics, diplomacy...you name it:

I first noticed an executive using it years ago, and I've since used it a number of times when the situation called for it. The move involves taking an argument up to a level where you can say something that is absolutely true while changing the context at the same time. Once the move has been executed, the other participants will fear appearing small-minded if they drag the argument back to the detail level. It's an instant game changer.

For example, if a military drone accidentally kills civilians, and there is a public outcry, it would be a mistake for the military to spend too much time talking about what went wrong with that particular mission. The High Ground Maneuver would go something like this: "War is messy. No one wants civilians to die. We will study this situation to see how we can better avoid it in the future."

Notice that the response is succinct, indisputably true, and that the context has been taken to a higher level, about war in general. That's what Jobs did. It's a powerful technique, and you can use it at home.

There's a limit to the method. I don't think that BP could have gotten away with it as a response to the oil spill because the problem was so large and it seemed unique to BP. But if they had tried the High Ground Maneuver, it would have looked like this: "All of the easy sources of oil have been found fifty years ago. If the oil industry stops taking risks, many of you would be out of work in less than a decade. We all want a future of clean energy, but no one sees a way to get there as quickly as we need to. We will do everything we can to clean up the spill, and to make things right with the Gulf economy."

The drone example doesn't actually sound all that convincing. But despite Adams' own misgivings, his suggested BP strategy seems like it could have been pretty effective.