Good Leaders Don't Use Bad Words
During a painfully dull futures workshop Down Under, a simple word change helped transform a stagnant discussion.
The facilitator, with a world-class flair for bafflegab and platitude, had asked the group to envision products customers might desire a decade hence. The conversation regurgitated cliché after customer-centric product cliché until the moment the team rejected and replaced the facilitator's language.
Instead of brainstorming new "products," the group instead collectively chose to imagine future "offers." The word forced a different discipline of design thinking. "Offers" usefully blurred categorical and cultural distinctions between "product" and "service" innovation. Making an "offer" looked and felt different than selling a "product." The more people talked, the clearer it became: "offers" was simply a better word and organizing principle for generating more innovative innovation scenarios. "Offers" liberated participants, where "products" constrained them.
Language matters. A lot. Amazon, for example, lists over 3000 publications about "product innovation" and roughly 800 for "service innovation." According to its search engine, however, the world's largest bookseller doesn't have a single "offers innovation" title. Is that an opportunity?
As Mark Twain once observed, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."
At Australia's Amplify Festival, former IBM Chairman/Europe Hans-Ulrich Maerki observed that one of the most important organizational and cultural shifts that occurred in the aftermath of IBM's $3.5 billion acquisition of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting over a decade ago was a subtle but profound shift in language. That acquisition signaled IBM's global commitment to become more of a professional services firm. But the company's internal and external vocabulary alike emphasized the computer giant's "product" origins.
After the acquisition, says Maerki, IBM began emphasizing "clients" over "customers." The PwC consultants relentlessly stressed that "customers" were about managing transactions but "clients" were about investing in relationships. IBM needed to redesign itself around serving clients, not selling customers. That was a distinction with an operational and organizational difference. (Maerki similarly observed that IBM soon stopped using "committee" in favor of "team" — another word-swap that ultimately had meaningful managerial impact.)
Changing important words helped change important behaviors.
Critics might argue that this emphasis on language is sophistry and wordplay. After all, actions speak louder than words and people pay — and invest — closer attention to incentives. This may be true. But the real question confronting leaderships is how much can language alter thoughts and influence behaviors? If the right words can cognitively and creatively reorient enterprise conversations, executives need to think twice about the vocabulary they outsource to their ad agencies and HR.
Too often, the default language of truisms, platitudes and clichés dominate communications. Perfectly good words like "innovation," "quality" and "morale" get flensed of all useful and usable meaning. There's a good word for that observed managerial behavior — laziness. Rather than invest real thought and effort into language that differentiates and adds value, executives — not unlike that facilitator — pick words that make it a little too easy to think a little too conventionally. Commodity words yield commodity outcomes.
In a truly global economy, ironically, opportunities for language-driven/language-enabled differentiation abound. Linguistics should be a source of design insight and competitive advantage. English may be — sorry — the "lingua franca" of global business but there's a wealth of languages for innovators and entrepreneurs to draw upon in their efforts to get their people to "think different."
While the nuances of "product" and "offer" or "customer" and "client" hold profound implications in English, truly understanding the meaning of, say, "kyosei" or "kaizen" in Japanese or "jeitinho" in Portuguese/Brazilian can also be sources of innovation inspiration. I am struck by how rarely global enterprises cultivate non-English words as "cultural software" to get their international employees — and customers/clients — engaged and aligned.
What are the Hindi, Tagalog and Mandarin words that should be redefining customer expectations and value creation over the next decade? How might "Spanglish" or Indonesian slang come to influence business vocabularies worldwide? Actions speak louder than words. But, inevitably and invariably, words describe actions and aspirations alike. The more global you are, the less lazy your organization needs to be about the words it chooses.