Mind the language of fancy business theories

Photo by CTR UT AustinI love a good business theory. I love the mutual recognition of a problem which I may or may not have been able to express myself, and of course the offer of a solution. Unfortunately, as Jason Smith very effectively points out in his article “Unleash the power of hyperspace”, they usually come wrapped in hubristic language. And there is a very large gap between that language and what actually happens in most organisations—even if the organisation contains people who have read and support the original business book.

I know too many organisations where enthusiastic managers—and even teams or departments—who champion a particular theory are at best tolerated and at worst ignored. I can think of several organisations which are commercially successful despite internal working practices that would make an outsider blanch (whether or not they considered themselves a business theorist). No doubt you do, too.

Where is the mismatch between the promise of these grand theories and the senior level of so many organisations? I think part of the problem is in that language. A book entitled, say, Let Loose the Energy Beyond Chaos (Jason’s title #537) might sit well with an individual at the top of the organisational tree, but when it comes to promoting the resulting theory of, say, Heuristic Team Re-engineering (business theory #892) there is a communication gap.

An individual has to convince colleagues that (a) they agree on the problem and (b) this is the solution. Agreement of the problem is unlikely to be fully 100%, so acceptance of the specific solution will be less again. Adding new language will distance colleagues further—they won’t have read the book and been similarly swept up in the march towards the author’s solution. The new language isn’t just unhelpful, it can act as a distancing factor.

Turning a theory into success in a particular organisation almost always has to be done by stripping away the language that made the solution so clear to the reader in the first place. By using language already familiar to colleagues the focus shifts to what needs to be done in this particular organisation, with these particular people, at this particular time. It becomes a very nuts-and-bolts conversation, and ultimately success is proved by doing.

Photo by CTR UT Austin