Simon Terry

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Action Makes an Abstract Noun Concrete

One of the attractive features of the DoLectures Australia talks was that the speakers didn’t spend too much time throwing around abstract nouns. As a group of people who make change happen the conversation was about what they had done.

Abstraction is a usual feature of conversations about change. In conversations about change, in large organisations and especially at conferences, it can some times feel like every noun is a capitalised noun.

The Dangers of a Capital Letter

Often people speak in general terms about nouns with great big capital letters like Change, Engagement, Community, Empowerment, Innovation, Creativity, Hierarchy, Power, Organisation, etc. Politicians and the leaders of organisations specialise in sprinkling their speech with capitals.

It is important to remember that nobody acts in the abstract. Speaking in abstract terms is a substitute for doing anything. Drop the capital letter and the context is usually much more specific.

A conversation remote from the details of action also generates confusion. There are hundreds of subtle differences in definitions of a concept as simple as Collaboration. At times, this confusion prevents any progress as people debate the meaning of the abstraction and the relevance of any action to their own personal definition.

At other times, this kind of confusion can allow people to impose their own perspectives. In these high level conversations you hear disconcerting phrases like:

“Of course I value Engagement with my people. I send them a weekly email…”

“We are very focused on Community here. That’s why we have a Corporate Social Responsibility function…”

“All our managers create Empowerment in their teams. I have made sure of it…”

Capitalised nouns look great in powerpoint, but they don’t do the work needed.

Action Makes a Noun Concrete

Fixing the explosion of Capitalised nouns in our work and our life is simple.

Do something. Then tell me a story of why and how you did it.

You don’t need a capitalised noun to do. Soaring rhetoric is for eagles.

If you want to use big concepts, make them clear in the context of the story of action. Action makes any capitalised noun concrete. Action rips out the capital.  

Suddenly Empowerment means I specifically empowered this person in this way. if I don’t like your definition of Empowerment, the challenge is not to debate you. The challenge is to do better.

The Future of Work needs to be the future of work.

We have big opportunities to change the future of how we work, make decisions and organise ourselves.

Start engaging in a discussion of the Future of Work and capitalised nouns appear quickly. People can lose sight of the fact that collaboration occurs everywhere, decisions happen every minute of the day and that people are continuously learning, doing and changing the shape of their work and relationships.

As we race into a future of work, let’s remember to act and to keep our discussions grounded.


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