What’s in a word?
I never cease to be amazed by the speed with which certain terms spread across all sorts of business communities, eventually bleeding out into mainstream usage. The latest is the popularity of the term North Star to indicate anything ranging from strategic objective, to guiding principle and more. North Stars have been cropping up everywhere recently in my dealings with clients, partners and suppliers, to the point that I become slightly irritated each time I hear it. Is it just me?
On a more serious note, I have been troubled for decades by the pseudo-militarisation of language in technology, consulting and marketing. From the more innocuous ‘Moonshot’ to describe ambitious goals that require a NASA-grade delivery effort, to the – frankly – more troubling ‘Manhattan Project’ (both also used by the UK Cabinet Office to describe time-pressured, herculean scientific responses to COVID-19), each of these terms have their origin in military spending and, in the case of the latter, resulting in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.
I defy anyone who has ever sat in sales or marketing meetings not to have heard – or used – terms like ‘tip of the spear’, ‘land and expand’, ‘drumbeat’, or using something ‘in anger’, as if it was a new gun. Am I being overly sensitive, or does this actually matter? Yuliya Komska and Michelle Moyd seem to think terminology is hugely important, as they cogently argue in this journal article about the normalisation of totalitarian terms into everyday language and its social consequences. There is something inherently oppressive about using military-sounding terms in meetings (which I find particularly grating when delivered by executives with no first-hand experience of the horrors of war). But it goes deeper than this, with other aggressive or utilitarian jargon (e.g. ‘penetration’ to refer to user uptake in a specific demographic, or ‘resources’ to refer to people on projects – both of which I have routinely used myself).
This makes me wonder if part of our collective efforts to humanise the workplace and change leadership habits for the better might require a conscious decision to use more inclusive language, not just borrow from the mainstream – linguistic disobedience anyone?
Do project managers ‘get it’?
Speaking of the power of language, I was recently asked to introduce Design Thinking to a group of senior PMs in a large industrial firm (if you’re not familiar with Design Thinking, see here, here and here to get started).
After the session, some of the senior PMs, who saw the value of this framework for their wider community, asked how we might help to bring this learning to the wider PM community in their company. Anticipating some of their objections (“it’s only for creatives”, “might work for digital but not proper projects”, “we’re not designers”, etc.) these enlightened PMs worried about how to get their wider, conservative community to get Design Thinking adopted and practiced.
As it turned out, the way to get their attention was simple. How many of their projects had failed due to poor requirements capture? How many projects had been started on the back of a big specification written by a technical process expert of 20-years, with little consideration for end users? How much time, effort and money had been wasted by making stuff that, at best, no-one used and, at worst, failed in its core objectives? Bingo!
Positioning the problem definition and solution design value of Design Thinking alongside the implementation and project delivery methodologies they were familiar with – e.g. the Requirements and Design stages of waterfall, as well as the more obvious Design Thinking delivery companions of Lean Startup and Agile, it all started to click.
What’s the moral of this story? Resistance to change is definitely not new (see this from 1969!), but people in our industry often think of hard-to-reach communities inside organisations (e.g. older users, very senior executives, deeply technical managers, etc.) as just not ‘getting it’ or being open to change. But perhaps we just need to do a better job of expressing the value of something new in terms they are familiar with, and be more open to the diversity of internal audiences – even when they’re a bit old school. Enabling this group of traditional workers to learn a new human-centred approach, rather than see it as something fluffy that only ‘creatives’ care about, might just be a matter of using the right language and motivations.
Sick of charts? More charts on the way!
We’re probably all charted-out after almost two years of pandemic tracking (with some of the best data journalism still being provided by the FT, IMO). But on the broader issue of how we communicate in business, it is almost impossible to ignore the spectacular growth of data visualisation platforms and applications, or their increasingly widespread use in the enterprise. In many cases, what people describe as visualisations are just more engaging charts, often with no better purpose than to make a report or presentation to management look good. Given the shortage of data scientists (part of the wider scarcity of digital talent I tackled some weeks back), perhaps the more superficial uses of data visualisations will continue, but that’s no bad thing.
The increased capabilities and growing popularity of tools like Power BI, Google Charts, Zoho Analytics, Sisense and the early visualisation stalwart, Tableau (among many others) is likely to lead to much self-taught expertise being developed within companies, whatever the purpose, which will be deployed to make more and more data-driven decisions (‘at scale’, as some of our old friends have been saying for years 😉).
What is particularly interesting to me about this ongoing trend is the democratisation of decision-making that data visualisation puts in the hands of employees. Over time, I hope that more and more non-technical people in informal leadership roles will be able to use data to communicate needs, success and opportunities across their organisations, without the need for line managers to get involved.