Are you missing the small shifts in language that can produce big changes in culture?

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Credit: Brett Jordan

If you want a different outcome, you have to do things differently.

What’s that mean?

Here’s how I put it in a recent article about innovation:

As someone seeking change, you’ll be asking people to do things differently. It can be helpful to remember that you’re embedded in the organization: if you approach the work in a way that feels comfortable, you’ll get the same results. So invite yourself to try new things and to take risks. Not only will this yield different outcomes, but you’ll also model the very experimentation you’re trying to facilitate.

On a recent podcast, my new friend and flight safety expert Adam Johns made this point very well (21:08). As part of shifting the safety culture at Cathay Pacific Airways, Adam intentionally made an effort to change the conversation happening around him.

He included short, bite-sized articles in safety committee meeting agendas and invited participants to reflect on how these topics applied to Cathay’s operations.

Adam found that leaders, after engaging with a new term from an article, would apply it fairly quickly. It would change their thinking.

In the context of safety, for example, managers would talk about and then, more importantly, start to internalize the difference between work as imagined (how a planner thinks a job is done) vs. work as done (what a person on the line actually does).

I’ve seen this in my work, too. Introducing the Efficiency-Thoroughness Trade-Off helps managers appreciate that everything is a trade-off. That awareness helps managers own those trade-offs — balancing the pressure to execute quickly against the desire to have every job done in as thorough a manner as possible — rather than pushing them down in the organization.

In some sense, my book Meltdown is all about understanding the difference between complicated systems and complex ones (read a sample here!). That sounds like a simple difference in language, but it’s not. Separating the two things can help us make sense of the world in a deep way.

Complicated systems have a lot of parts — but their behavior can be quite predictable.

In complex systems, on the other hand, it’s the interactions that matter, rather than the number of parts. As a result, complexity produces unexpected results.

Beyond Meltdown, just think about the late Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation or Amy Edmondson’s idea of psychological safety. Words create a schema in our brains; those schemas literally change the way we see the world.

And it’s not just systems: as a coach, I use curiosity to help my clients change their internal language. I’ve personally seen those changes unlock tremendous value for my clients, all because of a small shift. What looks like a failure from one perspective can turn out to be a success from another, but we only get there when we start to probe the language that we use in our stories.

As a writer, I’m biased, but I think language matters a lot. It changes the way we think, and it changes our awareness of possibilities.

What about you? How have you used language to change the conversation?

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Written by

Host of The Breakdown™ podcast. Co-author of MELTDOWN, a book on why our systems fail & what we can do about it. A lot, it turns out.

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