Scrabble letters

The Word is Still More Powerful than the Light Sabre in the 21st Century

I have been working in the world of advice and research for more than a decade, as have many of my colleagues at Leading Edge Forum. Our tools and weapons are words and pictures. Some people may view the world of words and language as rather abstract and impotent, but words are how we make sense of the world. Words are how we discuss, agree, transact and collaborate with each other. Poor use of words can confuse, disempower, enrage, irritate. Great use of words can cut through ambiguity, complexity, bu**sh** and lies. Powerful use of words can unify, inspire and excite. Here are some great examples:

  • Michael Gerber introduces the notion of “working in the business vs. working on the business” in The E-Myth, a book on entrepreneurship. I like to use this elegant terminology to describe the difference between IT and Digital.
  • In his wonderful book Finite and Infinite Games, Professor James Carse talks about “playing within boundaries vs. playing with boundaries”. I also find this an effective way to make the IT/ Digital distinction.
  • My colleague Lewis Richards, an expert on the technology-enabled 21st century human, uses the wonderful expression “It’s not about the headset, it’s about the mindset”.
  • LEF’s David Moschella coined the term the Matrix a few years ago, with a nod to the movies of the same name, to capture the power and breadth of the evolving smorgasbord of capabilities available to us from the digital world. It’s a much broader vision, and arguably a more powerful meme, than the cloud.
  • LEF’s Simon Wardley uses the terms Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners to summarize a way of working that allows new capabilities to be built, industrialized and then maintained.
  • To make the point about the importance of strategy, I have, for many years, used the meme “great landing, wrong airport” to describe an organization that executes well, but has unclear strategy.
  • When I talk about there being too many urgent priorities, I borrow the Ian Gillan quote off a Deep Purple bootleg album, asking the sound engineer to “turn everything up louder than everything else”.
  • David Moschella also mentioned that it would be better if Artificial Intelligence were called Machine Intelligence, making the excellent point that the intelligence isn’t artificial.
  • My colleague Doug Neal coined the term “the consumerization of IT” to describe the phenomenon of better technology and more valuable technology markets happening in the consumer space first, rather than the enterprise.
  • An ex-colleague of mine used to talk about issues which clients understood and talked about at length, but didn’t take action on, as “admiring the problem”. I also like “romancing the problem”.
  • One of Professor Rob Goffee’s great books on leadership is entitled Why Should Anyone Be Led By You– a question so simple and powerful that you almost don’t need to read the book.
  • In explaining that it was a bit silly to try to assign a value to the IT part of a project, another ex-colleague liked to talk about IT being an ingredient of a cake. Asking how much of the value of a project was created by IT is like “asking how much of the deliciousness of a cake is due to the flour in it.”
  • An ex-colleague coined the phrase “cucumbers and pickles” to capture the power of getting the opinions of those who had not yet been pickled in corporate assumptions.
  • Another ex-colleague borrowed the term “the last mile” from the world of telecoms, to talk about ensuring human communication made it to the desired audience – putting things in ways and places that they understood.
  • Claude Shannon, in his brilliant work on information theory, defined information as the resolution of uncertainty. This led to a very different, very useful perspective on what information is, and how we can encode it.
  • Professor Noam Chomsky, a polymath expert in linguistics, philosophy and many other things, co-wrote a great book entitled Manufacturing Consent. It’s about the role of the media in politics and society. What a powerful title.
  • And perhaps my favourite of all: in explaining his theory of logotherapy, which suggests that we can cure people’s neuroses not by treating the symptoms, but by helping them find purpose, Viktor Frankl borrows Nietzsche’s concept of “If you have a why, you can live with almost any how”.

My colleague Richard Davies loves to talk about how confusing the expression “Digital Transformation” often is. I think you would be hard pressed to get a group of people to agree exactly what either of the words means individually, let alone together. Similarly, in researching cyber-risk, my colleague Mike Bufalino has found that even experts don’t have clarity on the scope of, and relationships between, different terms in the areas of security and risk – like information assurance, cyber-risk management, IT risk, IT security, business continuity planning, etc.

The good news is that we don’t have to be ‘right’ when we use terms. (Indeed, there is arguably no such thing as right in this context.) We don’t have to agree with the rest of the world what words and phrases mean. But it is very powerful if we agree with those we are working with – customers, colleagues, partners – so that we are talking about the same things, and not missing each other. We suggest that it is worth companies and government agencies putting significant effort into continually refining and diffusing clear, powerful language that all stakeholders can use together to generate value.

Even if there is no such thing as right in this context, it is helpful to follow some guidelines:

  1. When defining something, clear is better than clever. Simple and short is better than long and complex.
  2. Definitions that don’t rely on other or special language or knowledge are the best.
  3. It is often helpful to define what something is, and also what it isn’t. (Definition and anti-definition.)
  4. It is powerful to define terms by difference – for example, IT vs. Digital, Strategy vs. Planning, Matrix vs. Cloud.
  5. Examples are an excellent way to bring clarity to a definition, especially for those who don’t enjoy abstract thinking.
  6. When using terms to cover a whole space, it helps if the terms cover the whole space, but don’t overlap (like pieces of a jigsaw). McKinsey coined the term MECE – mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive – for this. For example, defining cloud with the layers of IaaS, PaaS, SaaS and BPaaS is a good attempt at a MECE decomposition.
  7. Just having a definition is not enough. The definition has to be in circulation. It has to be used and discussed frequently by all stakeholders.
  8. Changing terminology too often means that there is not enough time to make it clear and make it stick. Language takes time to diffuse in an organization. On the other hand, changing terminology too slowly means that it will get out of date. A balance must be struck.

In order to do this ourselves, the LEF team has decided to spend some energy refining our 21st century lexicon. We will be using it and sharing it both internally and with our clients in the next couple of months. Watch this space!

This blog first appeared on Leading Edge Forum in June 2017.

Dave Aron

Author: Dave Aron

Dave Aron, based in the UK, is Global Research Director for Leading Edge Forum.  In this position, he guides a series of global research initiatives aimed at helping CIOs and other Business/ IT leaders reimagine their organizations and leadership for a tech-driven future.

Dave’s key areas of research include digital business, strategy and new business models.  Previously, Dave spent more than 12 years at Gartner, as a Gartner Fellow, focusing on strategy and CIO leadership issues.  Dave has more than 30 years’ experience in the IT business and has been writing, speaking and teaching on digital business, IT strategy and other topics around the world for more than a decade.

Dave holds a BSc in Computer Science from Queen Mary College, and an MBA from London Business School.

Dave’s alter ego is Mu, The 21st Century Anti-Strategist, which comprises Dave’s distilled thoughts about what doesn’t make sense as 20th century organizations sleepwalk into the 21st century.