Growing the language

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?… Has it ever occurred to your, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?… The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking-not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” – George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 5

Have you read Orwell’s 1984?  If you answered no, don’t feel bad.  I hadn’t until recently (and I’m not quite done with it yet).

If you consider yourself a change agent, especially one working inside an organization to remake it, I encourage you to pick up a copy of 1984 and dig in.

What bearing does a 62-year-old book have on people working in modern organizations? A lot.

For the sake of this post I’ll stick to Orwell’s fascinating take on the use and destruction of language.  One of my earliest posts on this blog, When One Blue Crayon Isn’t Enough, discussed the willful shrinking of language within organizations and how the loss of language kills thought.  Little did I know then that Orwell had painted that topic well in 1984.

When we are challenging the orthodoxy in our organizations, we must have enough words to paint new pictures of the future.  We can use words that others don’t.  We can broaden the language to improve thinking.   Language doesn’t have to only shrink.  If you work at it, you can make your organization’s language grow, and with it the organization’s ability to think bigger and better about your future.

Whether you are implementing Lean with all its words or Theory of Constraints or even just driving change (instead of driving people), try to grow the language in your organization in 2012 and I bet you’ll win more in your changes along the way.  Why not try?

3 thoughts on “Growing the language”

  1. I agree with you comment that expanding the vocabulary is very helpful to get people to envision new possibilities and improvements at work.

    I have read 1984 and found Orwell’s postulation that you could limit thought by changing the language provocative, but I am not sure there is any scientific basis (i.e., outside of fiction). Eskimos and skiers have lots of words for snow, but does that mean someone outside those groups is impaired in discussions about snow in some material way? I have seen no data suggesting this would be the case.

    While there is some utility in using words others don’t when trying to break out of the existing organizational orthodoxy, you run the concomitant risk of people not understanding what you mean and thus being slower to adopt the new ways of thinking. It is a dual-edged sword, in my opinion.

    There are organizational benefits to reducing the variability of terms and language. It gets people on the same page quickly and helps coordinate action if most of the people understand some common terms. Unfortunately, sticking only with standard terms may limit some creative possibilities as you note. As I noted above, there are negative aspects to almost all organizational approaches.

    Speaking of language, if you want to scare people and ignite immediate resistance, you could hardly do better that with “challenging the orthodoxy.” I am not sure a term like that will get the support you want for thinking differently. I usually suggest people start by asking questions about why things are done the way they are as a prelude for suggesting more effective approaches. It looks like that’s what you have in mind too. In a similar vein, maybe “encouraging” or “seeking” change would be less scary than “driving” it. Something to consider. While I am against “wimpy” language per se and prefer to use very clear language, that approach often does not lead to a successful outcome in an endeavor that depends on the willful cooperation of others, like changing the way things are done.

    Thanks for the interesting post, April.

  2. Ralph – Thanks for the great comments, on this and the other posts. I always enjoy hearing your take on the situations, knowing you think deeply and write clearly.

    You make some excellent points in your comments above. Perhaps I could have improved the post to narrow my language comments down to the specific example I pictured running through my head over and over again: the seemingly-willful shrinking of language surrounding problem investigations.

    Too often “human error” is a term worthy of Newspeak as meaning everything and nothing all at the same time, an excellent doublethink word. And a word like “training” is used to replace a wide range of concepts from education through self-directed learning, to technical training courses. These words can mean so much they in fact mean so little.

    If we, as change agents, can grasp the power of language both to enliven thought and to crush understanding, then we can use language’s power in the service of our change. Too often, when a change agent is unaware of the power of language they get themselves tangled in conversations with people using the same words with entirely different meanings. Great, worthy changes are lost when the words get in the way.

    Thanks again for weighing in.

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