The Language of Change : Who Is It For?

Sometimes we overcomplicate things, and that’s not OK. One way of helping to mitigate that, is to pay attention to the language of change, to make it clear, inclusive, and when possible, uncomplicated.

A lot of my work is about change, being comfortable with not knowing. Change often creates uncertainty – an unnerving feeling which stifles thinking, feeling, and doing. One way of helping to mitigate that is to pay attention to the language of change, to make it clear, inclusive, and when possible, uncomplicated. Some of the most interesting and useful inquiries I’ve been involved with have started with the simplest of questions.

Someone I follow on Twitter recently shared a few ‘good practice-based questions’ relating to transformation, from a business school event they were attending.

Principles of Action Research for Transformation (ART)

How does/could your purpose help support our collective thinking?

How does/could your knowledge creation include and transcend rationalist empiricism to acknowledge your whole self as relational beings?

How does/could your knowledge creation expand to include stakeholders – and with it a willingness to develop toward mutually transforming power?

How does/could your knowledge creation include multiple ways of knowing-for-action?

How does/could your knowledge creation integrate personal/reflexive with interpersonal/relational and impersonal knowledge

I spent time reading and re-reading these questions, several of which leave me cold. They seem foggy – lacking clarity and accessibility. Are these questions designed to exclude people? I would hope not – but that is how they feel to me. I grumbled for a while about becoming lost in the business school fog, then got on with something more useful, expecting to quickly forget about this little episode. Only I didn’t forget, I kept coming back to the question of why – why would someone who seeks to inquire about change, pose questions which seem to reinforce the stifling unnerving uncertainty I mentioned earlier?

The Times Higher Education website has recently published a piece titled, ‘Do business schools still have brand value?’ The article opens suggesting five golden rules for academic writing in management studies. These include:

‘…never use a short word where a long one will do; this prevents anyone understanding what you mean, further insuring you against criticism.’

‘…bamboozle people with jargon, and plenty of well-known names. This further paralyzes their critical senses: if Bourdieu or Heidegger said it, then it must be right. Right?’

One of the contributors to the article, Dennis Tourish, goes on to say:

“Those who write like this have one primary goal: building their careers, via publishing papers. They are not interested – at least, not primarily – in shaping public discourse, and helping to change the world. But they should be.

We in business and management studies need to put theory development back in its rightful place. Good theory is certainly important, but the insistence that every paper must do it – rather than, say, develop insights for practice or discuss a genuinely important issue – is rendering us irrelevant to any serious discussion of the multiple problems affecting our world.”

Once I finished reading the piece, I got involved in an exchange with a couple of folk on Twitter who are involved in higher education and research, and when I shared the questions I quoted earlier, freely admitting I am struggling to make sense of them, I received this as a reply:

“Often ‘the club’ uses its jargon to give sense of belonging to those in it and keep outsiders at arm’s length by creating mystery. Good business educators speak plainly and demystify the technically academic stuff.”

I agree, and it’s not just business schools where this obfuscation (see what I did there?) emanates from.

This classic piece of consultancy bamboozlement from Deloitte frequently gets highlighted as a piece of intentional complexity. The ‘You couldn’t possibly navigate this without us’ approach.

Change can be hard, and the process of exploring how we do things differently needs to acknowledge this, seeking clarity and inclusion as ways of engaging people in the process. Questions like ‘How does/could your knowledge creation include and transcend rationalist empiricism to acknowledge your whole self as relational beings?’ are not designed to be clear or inclusive. We need to do better.

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

2 thoughts on “The Language of Change : Who Is It For?”

  1. Doug, language is indeed one of the big problems in change. Because it is new, the tendency is to try and frame it and give aspects of it names, terms if you like. Then participants assume that when others use the same term they mean the same thing. The trouble is that every change is different and personal experience and perspective is just that – personal. Hence one person’s understanding of a term, say “project manager”, is different from another’s.
    There is also a sense of rivalry between followers of different practices that tends to close ears rather than open them.

    The work you do to encourage better listening and enquiry can make a huge difference, but it is a continual need, not a one-time shot in the arm.

    BTW I do like your brochure!

    1. I agree – there are risks associated with a lack of clarity and cocreation around terminology, and the rivalry aspect is worth noting and looking for too. Definitely an ongoing thing – and thank you for the kind words about the brochure 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *