“The” others, “Me and X,” “The business,” “We need x resources,” “We are agile”, “budget“, “[it is] the process…”
Words have meaning. They are not innocent. We use them daily without reflecting on their actual connotation, consequences on our daily lives, and professional culture. Words are not only the vector of our thoughts, but they also shape our ways of thinking – certainly more than what we first think.
Listening, talking, and observing, I came to pinpoint a few words detrimental to efficiency, collaboration, and the well-being inside organizations. Each company, each group of people of a decent size, has its own vocabulary, which is part of its culture – for example, the word people use for “meeting” varies from place to place. However, we found some of them recurring in several organizations and languages.
Let’s put a few of these locutions in the dock so that you can pronounce your sentence.
Disclaimer: I am a native French speaker, having spent only a few years in the US. Even though I have heard – and used – the constructs described below in an English-speaking world, my mother tongue might strongly influence me.
“The”, king of them all; the silo maker.
For a random French citizen, talking about “the British” brings back thousands of years of more or less open conflict. If peace has prevailed for the past century, the vocable inevitably revives history when you drop “the British” in a conversation – just try it in front of a rugby match. On the contrary, if you evoke “Penny” or “John,” beers are more easily pulled from the fridge.
“The” dehumanizes the individuals it refers to. We cannot feel empathy or trust for “the infra team” or “the marketing.” Even less so for “the finance.” Blaming “the digital marketing” is easier than going after Marjorie or Pedro. Moreover, we name these groups with vague concepts to simplify, to keep complexity at arm’s length – try explaining what “the finance department” does in your company.
Of course, a solution is to refrain from using the article and instead start referring to people’s names. This may need some courage – confronting the complexity – and maybe some effort – actually discovering a few human beings behind a tag. However, this effort might prove to be helpful in cracking corporate silos.
A special mention to “The business”
This one is more prevalent in IT departments. “The usiness asked …”, “The business has decided that…” “The business” is the source of authority, the reason for many complaints. But “The business” simply means the others versus us, the IT crew.
As a good friend and colleague put it simply, “The business” is merely all of us. Let’s maybe stop using that locution and start being more accurate.
The Infamous « Me »
Mirroring the previous pattern, we often hear – or say – “me” in inappropriate circumstances. I do not want to dive into a sociological digression. Still, our Western society has become so focused on a particular individual’s success that this trait indeed emerges in our language. “We are one team” can be tagged on your company walls, but at the end of the year, if me having more bonus means that you will have less, the company sends another message. There are two recurring patterns we shall detail below.
The first one is “Me and Jimmy…” This is grammatically incorrect, at least in French and English. But this egocentric turn of phrase is not rooted in a naive grammatical error. We can, for example, witness people switching to “X and me” if X is ranking higher enough in the organization. So, the pattern is the manifestation of the selfish view, which is commonly encouraged. I have not measured if the same people use “me and Y” or “Y and me” in different proportions when Y is family or colleague – up or down the ladder. That sounds like a fascinating experiment.
The second pattern is “my teams.” The plural is important here. This often is turned into “your teams” by sales reps desperately trying to flatter you. If we say, “my team,” it means that I am part of it. The vocable does not carry ownership but membership. But if we say, “my teams,” we suggest that they are mine, they belong to me.
Maybe we should be more sensible to the reward sent to one individual at the expense of another and disguised in grammatical errors. Swap the names, remove an “s,” or use “we” more often.
“We need x resources for project Phenyx.” Do you mean “x people” or maybe “x FTE?” Most often, yes. “Resource” is a synonym for “human being.” This can be frightening for some. And when we consider that x is not always an integer number, we slice bodies… And it goes even higher, as most organizations have a Human Resources Department. The concept is deeply rooted in our culture.
Of course, we need resources for the Phenyx project! These resources encompass money, computation power, knowledge, people, oil, and more. But maybe we only need cash for Phenyx. And as a human being, it simply has a cost, so let’s call them “resource”…
Do you see a people pattern here?
Three words, among many others, and a narcissistic pattern emerges. The corporate jargon clearly tries to dehumanize relations. Us versus them, me versus you, human beings counted as interchangeable resources. We live in a fantastic world…
Agility (“We are agile”)
“I don’t know what the future of agility is, but the word itself shall disappear,” said Henrik Kniberg. However, the word is prevalent, and its simplicity makes everyone understand it as they please. Almost all companies claim to be agile. Some top managers want to believe they can finally walk into a development team room and turn the product around on the spot. Others think there is no need for planning or a roadmap. Some certification vendors convince you that a three-day training and a pretty diploma will put your team on the road to efficiency. Developers might confuse Agility with total freedom. Many still believe that a few cherry-picked rituals will act as a gospel. A miracle has come.
But Agility is a product development methodology that addresses uncertainty with constant feedback loops. It favors interactions over processes, working software over documentation, and customer collaboration over contracts. As Nicole Forsgren and her coauthors have brilliantly demonstrated in their book Accelerate, Agility has won the methodology wars, at least in IT. In a VUCA world, no other alternative has proven more efficient.
Meanwhile, Agility vigorously shakes a company structure. A cross-functional stable team shall be dedicated to a single purpose, given autonomy, and asked for accountability. They talk continuously with their users, optimize value creation, and can regularly demonstrate the delivery progress. A single, engaged sponsor ensures the team is aligned with the corporate goals and acts more as a problem solver than a micro-manager. Trust and transparency are fundamental.
The good news is that not all companies need to be agile, but there must be a firm commitment cascading down from the highest spheres.
This word is not easy to kill. My own technique is to candidly ask: “Could you please explain to me in a few words what you mean by agility?”
Budget is the God of the corporate world. Little know what it is, but it decides the life and death of projects, up or down of careers. Heaven or Hell is judged upon a number’s color – black or red. It has its rituals and even a long yearly mass. Offerings are placed on the altar in the form of skipped meals and sleepless nights.
The authors of Beyond Budgeting have gone in-depth on the topic. Besides the artificial yearly cycle, there is a core problem when we pronounce the word “budget.” It can interchangeably mean “forecast” – what we predict will happen, “objectives” – what we agree we shall reach, or the current state – what we have in the balance. And this confusion, mainly between forecast and objectives, can be detrimental.
Maybe, next time you hear it, a solution is simply to ask what the hidden meaning of “budget” is.
Process – “It is the process”
If the budget is the company God, processes are the invisible priests. Do not misinterpret me: processes are essential in many situations. They should be the product of past learning in order to sail safely. However, we often hear the sentence “it is the process,” mostly in unfavorable contexts. It can mean “you must (not) do that” without explaining the real reasons. Processes have piled up in some kind of process debt.
Even if power looks terrifying, challenging the processes can be interesting – and sometimes useful. The first reaction can be to ask the reason behind the process, even the law text if one is invoked. It can also be interesting to ask who in the organization is responsible for this particular process to the invoker. Or, if you are in the mood, you can simply ignore the spell and see what will happen.
More constructively, you might indeed be in charge of creating new processes. In such a case, it can be the right time to ask yourself: “What existing process(es) can I remove in exchange for the new one I bring in?”
You Have a License to Kill
We have simply put a few words on the bench. There are more around, and certainly others specific to your organization. Our purpose is not to fall into some politically correct witch hunt but to become more conscious of how we shape our professional world.
Words have meanings. They are not innocent. The good news is that you can kill some and give birth to others simply by closing or opening your mouth. Today. Simply stop using them, and rephrase your colleagues’ sentences carefully. But killing them and replacing them is a long and strenuous endeavor. It requires tenacity, challenging everyone every time, and explaining with patience and passion. But as Damon Edwards said: “You cannot change culture, but you can influence behavior, and behavior becomes culture.”