The movie Lewis and Clark, about the exploration of the landmass west of the mighty Mississippi river, has a scene wherein the white man shows the indigenous people the power of writing. The white man asks a Chief to tell him a story that he writes down in a little note book. Then, the white man gives the note book to his companion, who didn’t hear the story, but who’s now reading it back to the Chief. The Chief is perplexed and angry.
We are familiar with the fact of transferring words but our struggle is more related to the meaning or interpretation of words. It’s not uncommon for different people to attach different connotations to one and the same word. Take for example the word “Governance”. When you look it up in the dictionary, it says “The act of governing – authoritative direction or control”. However, this word has been hijacked by legal and financial people in the business world. They want you to understand it as “compliance with State and Federal regulations”.
Another trouble with words is that people use specific words in their every day speech without actually knowing what they mean; if asked they seem unable to give a definition or explanation of the words they use. It happened to me last week when I was at a networking event, explaining that I am an expert in organizational change. I was asked: “What do you mean by CHANGE?” Well, anything different from routine. Another popular word that many people use but only few can explain is “PROCESS”. This is a formalized sequence of activities or tasks.
Sometimes it makes me feel like a stickler for detail or an old-stick-in-the-mud, attaching this kind of importance to a single word. But when we are careless in our communication, how can anyone meet the other one’s expectations? Why do we have to say “corporate governance” when we mean “legal compliance”? Why do I care? Well, I’d like to use the word “Governance” for what I do because the dictionary describes it perfectly; it stems from “control” or “cybernetics”. But, control is too generic and cybernetics is too much of a big word that hardly anyone knows. Governance is also used in a device called a “centrifugal governor”. This is a device that the Dutch already used in their windmills during the 18th century. It’s a device that prevents the system from destroying itself. That’s what I do; I help organizations prevent themselves from destroying themselves from within. So, I had to come up with my own word and chose: “Business Mechanics™”.
Then, there’s “Political Correctness”. It seems as if I can no longer use the word “Problem” because it sounds too negative. If you have problems then there must be something wrong with you and we don’t want that stigma attached to anyone. So, we no longer have any problems but “Challenges”. Now, a challenge means as much as a contest or a dare, which you can accept or decline. However, a problem indicates a variance between your current situation and your forecast or desired situation. If you planned on selling $100,000 worth of goods and you only did $80,000 then your problem is $20,000. Now you’re challenged!
If we don’t understand each other or misunderstand each other, how can we even hope to bring change to a fruitful conclusion? Sometimes there’s a lack of knowledge which makes it hard for any person to understand what’s expected. This is often the case when decision-makers fail to connect the dots and appreciate why a proposed course of action is necessary. Consequently, they withhold their executive sponsorship, delegation of authority and the allocation of resources, and without that nothing changes. That’s why many projects fail or not even get past getting started.
Many issues are simple at the core; not rocket science, really. We just make things complex and convoluted. I enjoy unraveling what seems complex and turning it into easy to understand models and concepts. Then, solutions can be elegant and simple.
Whenever you’re puzzled by complexity and looking for an answer, remember what Albert Einstein had to say about this: “When the solution is simple, God is answering!”