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Communication Breakdown Part 3: Words of Change

Can the words we use in daily speech actually change the direction of an organization? This is the question that I want to explore in this week’s post.

Words are powerful – not just the words themselves - but in what they allow us to achieve. Our vocabulary and the way we communicate frames our current reality as well as what is possible. I recently read a paper by Robert Dunham, author of The Innovator’s Way and founder of the Institute for Generative Leadership. In this paper entitled “Innovation as Language Action”, Dunham states:

From the perspective of language and conversation, an organization’s actions and changes occur in and come from the language and conversations that it is able to have. An organization’s current actions and future prospects are bounded by the limits of these conversations. Innovation is limited by, or generated by, the conversations people can have.

Just to recap - An organization’s available actions and future prospects are defined by the types of conversations they can have. This is profound. The central notion of Language Action Approach (and Speech Act Theory) is that through speech acts we produce shared commitments for actions. Therefore, the types of comments, questions, and conversations that we have within our organizations impact our commitments and actions.

While we can directly focus on changing our language, it is often easier for us to embrace certain tools, technologies, or processes that indirectly change how we can see the world, the conversations we have, and the dynamic and focus of the team. For example, construction is historically (and often notoriously) a “command and control” environment. Especially when it comes to developing and managing the schedule on projects, the types of conversations we typically have involve directives and assertives: “you need to get these activities done by Tuesday”; “You’re two days late- you need to get another crew on site ASAP”; or “that’s going to result in a change order or a delay claim”. These speech acts create a certain type of environment – it’s adversarial, defensive, reactive, closed to discussion, short-range, and focused on the actions/failures of others rather than the commitments of oneself. However, in recent years a technique called Last Planner System has become more popular and it has changed the types of conversation. This system allows the schedule to be highly visual, collaboratively developed through commitments from those responsible for the actual work, and provides a means to understand the interdependencies between single tasks and the big picture. With Last Planner, we hear a lot more “we need you to finish your task so that it released work for these other trades” or “We need you to finish your work in that area within four days, what do you need to make that happen?” and “I can get that done if you help me with the following…”. These conversations are personal commitments, open for discussion, empowering, supported, inclusive of the bigger picture, and collaborative. In both situations, we are trying to develop and manage the flow of work for a project, however using a tool or process that does something as basic as shifting our speech can create a totally different team environment, culture, and behaviors.

Dunham goes on to ask two important questions: “What conversations are producing the actions of my organization now?” and “What are the missing conversations that, if present, would produce more effective action that we are producing now?” Every leader should take a moment to walk around their office, listen to the types of conversations their people are having, and ask themselves those two questions.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a fascinating transition at Balfour Beatty related to our conversations around our clients.

  1. Intention and Awareness: First it started with the desire to become more of a trusted advisor and relentless ally for our clients. Although these were just aspirational words, the constant repetition of them did begin to trigger a shift in intention and awareness.

  2. The Beginning of the Conversation: Next, the focus evolved into having different types of early conversations with our clients – conversations about their hopes and fears, about their broader business case, about the experience that they are looking for when engaging with us – really trying to understand our customers more holistically an beyond the context of a specific building project. This created a shift in our early conversations with clients from “we already know exactly what you want and will delivery it to you without any problems” (presumptive, self-assured, closed to discussion, uninspiring, focused on risk and problems, and transactional) to “tell us more about what you are hoping for, looking for, why it matters, and how we can go beyond what we typically would do to make this an exceptional experience for you.” (eager to learn, interested, open to discussion, values-based, inspiring, transformational). A change in conversation led to a totally different relationship with our clients.

  3. From Words to Actions: Next, the conversation needed to translate from discussion with the client to how we actually deliver our projects. We began to evolve the conversations with our project teams. Our project startup process began to shift away from getting the team to understand and execute our standard operating procedures and focusing on doing the same thing we’ve always done (i.e. the rote, mechanical, unengaged following of standard procedure). Instead, we moved to sessions focused on gaining alignment within the team around behaviors/values/governance, collaborative strategy development, deep process integration across the diverse team, and setting up systems for continuous evaluation of how the team is doing focused on continuous improvement. This shift in our project startup conversation led to a totally different dynamic within our teams focused on alignment, transparency, creativity, collaborative development, collective ownership, and continuous improvement. Different conversations, different focus and mentality.

  4. Deep Change: Recently, the conversation has evolved even further into looking deeply at our own business and our internal and project-based operations. The old conversations of “what is my job description?” and “what do I need to do today?” have begun to change toward conversations along the lines of “how does what I do translate to value?”, “how can I do my job more effectively?” and “how does what I do every day impact our ability to deliver greater value to our clients?” Time will tell what they outcome of these different types of conversation will be, but my hope is that they will transform us into a true learning organization relentlessly focused on eliminating waste so that we can focus our energy on delivering greater value to our clients and employees.

We tend to think that ideas spread based on their inherent merit, however, more and more I am realizing the power of priming (or preparing something or someone for action) through our language. I’ve seen great ideas get completely ignored one year and then eagerly adopted the following year. I’ve seen hollow distractions of an idea that where phrased the right way take priority over much more substantive and potentially transformational ideas that people didn’t have the awareness to fully understand. The difference was in the words that the organization was using at that time; the words we use and the questions we ask bring our awareness to certain things and also determine how we understand our world and the possibilities within that world.

Pay attention to language. Listen to the language people are using within your organization. It will give you a pulse check on the true appetite for change, the general mood, the priorities, and the focus of the collective awareness - much greater and more accurate insight than you would get by any other means. Through language and our speech acts we produce shared commitments for action. In turn, our actions and our level of commitment toward those actions determine our short-term and long-term success. Therefore, if you want to drive change, start with changing the your language. Words matter. Strategic plans from the C-suite only get you so far. The words, language, and conversations of the greater organization are the only thing that will truly result in change, innovation, and long-term success.

As Gandhi said “Be the change you wish to see in the world” (and start with your language).

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