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.

Diversity In The Bored Room

I really enjoyed listening to Lenny Henry at the recent Changeboard Future Talent event. His talk was funny and powerful – I was live blogging on the day and first shared some of what he spoke about here.

Something which really struck me in the talk, and which has stayed with me, was a focus on the lack of diversity inclusion and representation, both in the media, and in the wider world of work. This extract is from my earlier blog post about the talk:

Lenny called out the lack of racial diversity in the room. He told us of recent times in the media, where figures show that for every BAME person who lost their job, two white people were employed. This is partly why Lenny Henry continues his campaigning in the media for greater diversity, inclusion, and representation.

Diversity in the boardrooms – that’s where change starts.

If you think you can’t change it yourself? Apply pressure to those who can.

It’s easy to spot the places and people taking diversity, inclusion, and representation more seriously. They put real jobs, and money behind it!

Out of curiosity, I started to take a look at the very top levels of some of the organisations sponsoring and speaking at the event. I’ve always had a sense of the inequality in the upper echelons of business, but never sat down and taken a good look at it myself. In doing so, I recognise that diversity has many facets, and as my friend Laura Tribe suggests, ‘looking diverse isn’t being diverse’, however what my small piece of research uncovered is a much more distorted picture than I had previously imagined. Here’s what I found (what follows is an edit of a thread I shared on Twitter):

I went to an event this week where diversity and inclusion was high on the agenda. One of the speakers said change has to start in the boardrooms. This point got me curious, so I’m currently looking at boards and senior leadership teams of some of the event sponsors and the companies represented by some of the speakers at the event. What I am seeing is white faces everywhere.

I appreciate there are elements of diversity and inclusion which go unseen, but what I observe so far, is overwhelming sameness. Here is just one example, there are plenty of similar ones to choose from.

Photos of the current board of directors at capita plc. 6 white men, 2 white women.

 

Here is another board of directors represented at the event. There is a little more gender diversity among the the next hierarchical level down, the executive team, but it is still overwhelmingly white.

Photographs of the main board of directors at Aviva plc. 5 white men.

 

Here’s another board, the first one I’ve come across so far with a woman CEO. At the executive level, one down from here, there are two women and nine men in the group of 11, no people of colour.

Photos of the main board at royal mail. 6 white men, 3 white women

Lenny Henry

Just before lunch, Lenny Henry spoke at the ChangeBoard future talent event. He brought the house down with a mixture of humour and passion, the like of which I’ve rarely seen and heard at a conference. Here are just a few snippets, notes I captured in between the laughter and the tears…

Lenny’s family came to the UK expecting streets paved with gold. What they got was factories, soot, and racial abuse. Lenny recalls his Mum being followed down the street while someone asked where her tail was.

During school, Lenny got into a daily fight with another kid named David Price. Eventually Lenny made a joke of it – something about instead of rolling around on the floor maybe we should just go out on a date – get married..? People laughed, the situation diffused, the fights stopped. There were several times in the talk where the power of humour was highlighted.

Lenny failed his 11+ exams. When he left school, took a factory job – driven to practice and rehearse his comedy to avoid the boredom repetition and smell and whine of machinery.

A winning appearance on New Faces brought Lenny to wider public attention, and he spoke about subsequently going go the BBC and seeing almost no other black faces.

Whilst on tour with Cannon and Ball, Lenny returned to further education, revising for O levels, studying world war poetry. Lenny found further education transformational. He felt fortunate that he could afford it, and now despairs for kids and the debts they incur to learn.

Can I do it? Play Othello? Yes – said the director, you can. Hard work produced a great performance and Lenny won the Evening Standard Outstanding Newcomer acting award….at the age of 50. The power of a yes.

Lenny called out the lack of racial diversity in the room. He told us of recent times in the media, where figures show that for every BAME person who lost their job, two white people were employed. This is partly why Lenny Henry continues his campaigning in the media for greater diversity, inclusion, and representation.

Diversity in the boardrooms – that’s where change starts.

If you think you can’t change it yourself? Apply pressure to those who can.

It’s easy to spot the places and people taking diversity, inclusion, and representation more seriously. They put real jobs, and money behind it!