For human beings, language is a powerful connector. We use common vocabularies to interact socially, build communities, and facilitate understanding.
Young people seem to “get” this. A colleague of mine shared a story about his 9-year-old daughter who follows a popular Minecraft YouTuber. The fan group uses a rating system—with terms like “OK,” “Good,” “Epic,” and “Legendary” to describe how good each build is. Each member of that community is familiar with the ranking vocabulary and can connect on its meaning.
In your organization, establishing a common language can be a critical tool in determining how well your team can work together, develop a shared culture, and adopt innovative ideas. The right vocabulary can inspire behavioral transformation and can make a major difference in your success.
Language changes our behavior
Throughout history, changes across cultures, in the domains of science, technology, social movements, and business, have always emerged through a change in language use. First, communities begin to talk differently—a new vocabulary is introduced—and their narrative begins to change. If the new language is useful, if it helps the community solve a problem or create a new possibility, the narrative will begin to spread more broadly. When other communities learn of the usefulness of these new narratives, they are likely to adopt them.
New terminology can inspire cultural revolutions. Phrases such as “groovy” and “far out” conjure images of tie-dyed hippies in the 1960s. In organizations, a shared vocabulary is essential for establishing culture. When used effectively among team members, it can enable collaboration and alignment. If organizations fail to develop and utilize a shared vocabulary, it often results in confusion, mistrust, and frustration.
Beyond leading us toward mutual understanding, vocabulary can open the doors to creative new ideas. In an article on user experience, designer and MING Labs founder Sebastian Mueller describes how language can impact innovation: “The more words and distinct concepts people have at their disposal, the more they will understand and be able to engage in the process itself.”
Making use of a shared language across your organization invites everyone to participate in the innovation discussion.
Crazy ideas and Fourth Options
During my growth strategy consulting workshops, participating organizations generate hundreds of ideas (usually around 250) to solve their challenges and reshape their strategies. Then, they analyze and rank each idea based on its level of difficulty and impact.
High-impact, easy-to-execute ideas are called winning moves. Ideas that are easy to execute but low impact are tactics. Time wasters are low impact and difficult to achieve. The “go to the moon” ideas that appear difficult but that could lead to significant gains are called crazy ideas. Once participants have a category and terms for crazy ideas, we find that they are much more likely to bring them forward to the team.
We also talk about “Fourth Options.” This is the point where most companies stop looking for additional ideas. They come up with three possible solutions and cease their search. But entrepreneurs and innovators aren’t satisfied with three options. They keep looking for the silver bullet—the option that hasn’t been considered. Armed with this term, participating organizations are reminded not to settle while they continue seeking out fourth options to achieve their goals.
Establishing a common language
I recently flew out to California to conduct a workshop with an unusual client. While I typically work with corporations and internal innovators, the Cajon Valley Union School District decided it wanted to bring innovation into its schools.
Based on former Ritz-Carlton President Horst Schulze’s hospitality “non-negotiables,” which are well known for transforming the hotel guest experience, the school district’s leadership, faculty, and staff created a set of their own “non-negotiables” to transform the student, parent, and entire school community’s experience. Now, when they talk about their culture, values, and strategy, they have a common vocabulary that reminds everyone in the organization what they’re striving for.
According to behavioral psychologists, language is a precursor to behavior change. In order to establish a common language for innovation on your team, consider the following factors:
- Define a shared purpose: There can be hurdles on the path to using a shared vocabulary. Many organizations face siloed structures, differing incentive programs, or barriers to communication. Remember that a shared vocabulary is a tool that when wielded correctly can establish common ground and open new doors of possibility.
- Recognize different points of view: Parts of your team or broader organization may already have their own shared vocabulary (for example, design teams often use Agile terminology). Don’t assume that everyone is coming from the same level of understanding. Recognize differing perspectives and attempt to come to mutual agreement before proceeding.
- Consider your end-user: The ultimate goal of collaborating through a shared language is to serve your end-user. Whether it’s through a set of “non-negotiables” or another concept that is more relevant to your team, you’ll use your terminology to create a positive experience for your customers, team members, employees, and brand community.