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High Ground Maneuver - Dilbert Blog

High Ground Maneuver

I’m sure you’re all following the iPhone 4 story. If you hold the phone a certain way, it drops calls.

In a press conference on the subject, Steve Jobs said, “We’re not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy.”

Jobs got a lot of heat about his response. Where was the apology? Where was the part where he acknowledged that the buck stops with him, and that Apple made a big mistake that never should have happened? That’s public relations 101, right?

I’m a student of how language influences people. Apple’s response to the iPhone 4 problem didn’t follow the public relations playbook because Jobs decided to rewrite the playbook. (I pause now to insert the necessary phrase Magnificent Bastard.) If you want to know what genius looks like, study Jobs’ words: “We’re not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy.”

Jobs changed the entire argument with nineteen words. He was brief. He spoke indisputable truth. And later in his press conference, he offered clear fixes.

Did it work? Check out the media response. There’s lots of talk about whether other smartphones are perfect or not. There’s lots of talk about whether Jobs’ response was the right one. But the central question that was in everyone’s head before the press conference – “Is the iPhone 4 a dud” – has, well, evaporated. Part of the change in attitude is because the fixes Apple offered are adequate. But those fixes easily could have become part of the joke if handled in an apologetic “please kick me” way.

If Jobs had not changed the context from the iPhone 4 in particular to all smartphones in general, I could make you a hilarious comic strip about a product so poorly made that it won’t work if it comes in contact with a human hand. But as soon as the context is changed to “all smartphones have problems,” the humor opportunity is gone. Nothing kills humor like a general and boring truth.

I’ve wondered for some time if Jobs studied hypnosis, or if he’s some sort of freakish natural. And I wonder how much of his language is planned versus off-the-cuff. He speaks and acts like a master hypnotist. (For new readers, I’m a trained hypnotist myself, and it definitely takes one to know one.)

I have long had a name for Jobs’ clever move. I call it the “High Ground Maneuver.” 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.”

Someday business students will read about Steve Jobs’ response to the iPhone 4 issue and they will learn that the High Ground Maneuver (probably by some other name) became the public relations standard for consumer products companies from that day on.