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Radical Change Needs A Shared Language

2021 October 31
by Greg Satell

One of the toughest things about change is simply to have your idea understood. The status quo always has inertia on its side and never yields its power gracefully. People need a reason to believe in change, but they never need much convincing to allow things to go along as they always have. Inaction is the easiest thing in the world.

This can be incredibly frustrating. It doesn’t matter if you’re a political revolutionary, a social visionary or an entrepreneur, if you have an idea you think can impact the world, you want people to be as excited about it as you are. So you try to describe it in vivid language that highlights how wonderfully different it really is.

The pitfall that many would-be revolutionaries fall into is they fail to communicate in terms that others are able to accept and internalize. Make no mistake. Nobody needs to understand your idea. If you think your idea is important and want it to spread, then you need to meet people where they are, not where you’d like them to be. That’s how you make change real.

The Importance Of Finding Your Tribe

There’s no question that Pixar is one of the most successful creative enterprises ever. Yet in his memoir, Creativity, Inc., Pixar founder Ed Catmull wrote that “early on, all of our movies suck.” Catmull calls initial ideas “ugly babies,” because they start out, “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” Few can see what those ugly babies can grow into.

That’s why it’s important to start with a majority. You can always expand a majority out, but once you are in the minority you will either immediately feel pushback or, even worse, you will simply be ignored. If you can find a tribe of people who are as passionate about your idea as you are, you can empower them to succeed and bring in others to join you as well.

There is, however, a danger to this approach. Consider a study that examined networks of the cast and crew of Broadway plays. The researchers found that if no one had ever worked together before, results tended to be poor. However, if the networks among the cast and crew became too dense— becoming a close-knit tribe—performance also suffered.

The problem is that tribes tend to be echo chambers that filter outside voices. Consensus becomes doctrine and, eventually, gospel. Dissension is not only discouraged, but often punished. Eventually, a private language emerges that encodes the gospel into linguistic convention and customs. The outside world loses internal tribal relevance.

The Pitfalls Of A Private Language

Every field of endeavor must navigate the two competing needs: specialization and relevance. For example, a doctor treating a complex disease must master the private, technical language of her field to confer with colleagues, but must also translate those same concepts to a public, common language to communicate with patients in ways they can understand.

Yet as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein explained, these types of private languages can be problematic. He made the analogy of a beetle in a box.  If everybody had something in a box that they called a beetle, but no one could examine each other’s box, there would be no way of knowing whether everybody was actually talking about the same thing or not.

What Wittgenstein pointed out was that in this situation, the term “beetle” would lose relevance and meaning. It would simply refer to something that everybody had in their box, whatever that was. Everybody could just nod their heads not knowing whether they were talking about an insect, a German automobile or a British rock band. The same also happens with professional jargon and lingo.

I see this problem all the time in my work helping organizations to bring change about. People leading, say, a digital transformation are, not surprisingly, enthusiastic about digital technology and speak to other enthusiasts in the private, technical language native to their tribe. Unfortunately, to everyone else, this language holds little meaning or relevance. For all practical purposes, it might as well be a “beetle in a box.”

Creating A Shared Identity Through Shared Values And Shared Purpose

The easiest way to attack change is to position it as fundamentally at odds with the prevailing culture. In an organizational environment, those who oppose change often speak of undermining business models or corporate “DNA.” In much the same way, social and political movements are often portrayed as “foreign” or “radical.”

That’s why successful change efforts create shared identity through shared values and shared purpose. In the struggle for women’s voting rights in America, groups of Silent Sentinels would picket the White House with slogans taken from President Woodrow Wilson’s own books. To win over nationalistic populations in rural areas, the Serbian revolutionary movement Otpor made the patriotic plea, “Resistance, Because I Love Serbia.”

We find the same strategy effective in our work with organizational transformations. Not everybody loves technology, for example, but everybody can see the value of serving customers better, in operating more efficiently and in creating a better workplace. If you can communicate the need for change in terms of shared values and purpose, it’ll be easier for others to accept.

Even more importantly, people need to see that change can work. That’s why we always recommend starting with a keystone change, which represents a clear and tangible objective, involves multiple stakeholders and paves the way for future change. For example, with digital transformations, we advise our clients to automate the most mundane tasks first, even if those aren’t necessarily the highest priority tasks for the project.

Would You Rather Make A Point Or Make A Difference?

One of the most difficult things about leading change is that you need to let people embrace it for their own reasons, which might not necessarily be your own. When you’re passionate about an idea, you want others to see it the same way you do, with all its beautiful complexity and nuance. You want people to share your devotion and fervor.

Many change efforts end up sabotaging themselves for exactly this reason. People who love technology want others to love it too. Those who feel strongly about racial and gender-based diversity want everyone to see injustice and inequality just as they do. Innovators in any area can often be single-minded in their pursuit of change.

The truth is that we all have a need to be recognized and when others don’t share a view that we feel strongly about, it offends our sense of dignity. The danger, of course, is that in our rapture we descend into solipsism and fail to recognize the dignity of others. We proudly speak in a private language amongst our tribe and expect others to try and find a way in.

Yet the world simply doesn’t work that way. If you care about change, you need to hold yourself accountable to be an effective messenger. You have to make the effort to express yourself in terms that your targets of influence are willing to accept. That doesn’t in any way mean you have to compromise. It simply means that you need to advocate effectively.

In the final analysis, you need to decide whether you’d rather make a point, or make a difference.

– Greg


Image: Pixabay


2 Responses leave one →
  1. manuel saenz permalink
    November 14, 2021

    Hi, just a word of warning. I’m subscribed to your newsletter. I clicked on one of your links to this post and my chrome extension malwarebytes said there was a risk of fishing.

    you may want to check why that happens

    Thanks for the content

  2. November 16, 2021

    Thanks! There was a hack but now it’s safe.

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