In projects we often here people say ‘we need to create a new language’. Words are a weak form of change. Actions matter more.
New Words for Snow
Symbols matter in large scale change programs. New symbols can be a powerful way to signify that change is occuring and to reinforce the new expectations. These symbols can reinforce and help propagate the change messages by being a sign that things are different and provoking discussion.
A common form of these symbols is the idea of creating ‘a new organisational language’. New ways of describing the new ways of work can be part of a suite of symbols for change. However they aren’t the only symbols and in many regards can be the least useful.
We have all heard the idea that ‘eskimos have more words for snow’. Eskimos don’t necessarily and the types of snow is not limited by our language. At the heart of some people’s view of the need for new language is the idea that we can’t know or interpret the change without language. That’s not how humans work. Language is a tool of communication. It is not a limit to understanding. We know things we can’t describe yet. More importantly for change, we can do things we can’t describe too.
In change, often the most important thing is not the new jargon, the most important thing is to explain the change in simple language that helps people connect the changes to what they do today and what they need to do differently.
New languages can easily end in change gibberish. The meaning of new words and phrases are often unclear. Imposing alien language means people haven’t developed their own sense and use of those words in practice. People can and will interpret these phrases in ways that suit their perceptions and their agendas.
If you have been involved with efforts to communicate values in organisations you will have seen the chaos that results when we expect words to do the lifting on the meaning of actions. I don’t need to hear another discussion where people take completely different views of what the values mean. It is all too common to hear conversations like ‘I am Accountable. I don’t like that you are saying that I am not Accountable. I think you aren’t being Respectful’. In these discussion the magic words often get in the way of a deeper understanding of the change. Like the story of the tower of Babel, new language can impede understanding. Magical change words have become change gibberish when everyone interprets the change differently.
New language explains new ways of working. The ways of working give meaning to the words and are the most powerful symbol of the changes. If you want to explain your new language and develop a consistent meaning for the people, match the words with consistent and visible practice.