The overview effect and the role of agencies
In the course of history, few human beings have had the opportunity to see planet Earth from space. These, the astronauts, have had the immense privilege of leaving the atmosphere of our planet to live a totally unique experience. They are fortunate, but many have returned as totally different people.
In 1987, author Frank White published his famous book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. The concept of the “overview effect” refers to the cognitive shift in consciousness that some cosmonauts have reported during their space voyages when observing for themselves what the Earth and humanity really represent in space: a small blue ball floating in the vastness of space. Or as the great science educator Carl Sagan said: “a speck of dust suspended in a ray of sunshine” in which “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you’ve ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived their life there”.
In their statements, astronauts of different nationalities speak of a change in the way of thinking or approaching problems by understanding that everyday conflicts, borders or wars are not important at the cosmic level. Seeing our home from a different, external perspective changed their lists of concerns and pushed them to talk about global challenges such as climate change or the creation of a planetary society.
At Canela, we do not intend to turn this blog into a study of cosmology or philosophy. We just want to show that, if we understand what the “overview effect” implies in general, we can draw conclusions of some help to the business world.
Organisations are sometimes self-absorbed with what is going on inside them. Creating strong bonds and a sense of community between companies and their employees is a task that brings great joy, but it can have a side effect: a lack of internal critique. Some companies have failed in their long-term strategies by not getting out of their bubble and not seeking an outside perspective.
Communication and public relations agencies, along with other consultancy firms, should not just be providers who fulfil their clients’ wishes in a literal sense. Their added value, beyond the creation of creative campaigns, lies in providing their client with an external point of view, in pointing out in a professional manner the weaknesses and challenges that, perhaps, have not been detected.
How are we seen from the outside?
A good communications consultant must play a dual complementary role: the ability to observe the world as if he were his client while remaining empathetic to his client’s client; understanding the needs of the end user and citizens in order to properly advise those who place their trust in him. To do this, agencies must be like an astronaut observing organisations from the outside to spot opportunities that can only be seen from space.
In this context, market research, documents analysing the sector, the competition and media groups, monitoring of social networks and recurring meetings to define the strategy must be necessary elements in the collaboration between companies/organisations and communication agencies. These tools allow us to adopt that “overview effect” to indicate how we are seen from the outside, what dissonances there are between how we believe others see us and what others really see of us. They are sometimes humbling cures that allow us to adapt to new realities and new targets, but they are worth it in the long run. Better to shout in time “Houston, we have a problem” than to throw away a strategy of years of work by being too indulgent.