LF03 - Language is a Problem

September 25, 2019

Language is a Problem

“Poetry tries to bridge the abyss lying between the name and the thing. That language is a problem is no news to poets.” ~ Charles Simic

Organizations are built on language, and language begins with noticing and naming. If you want to change an organization, change its language.

At Little Futures, we use the phrase “noticing and naming” a lot. But noticing and naming are in constant tension - noticing is unbundling and naming is bundling.

Every business is a search for an untapped advantage and a plan to execute on it. Those advantages come from noticing, and those plans come from naming.

Let’s unpack that.

Noticing

Noticing is an act of unbundling existing contexts (customers, markets, technologies, cultures, forces) and disentangling the idea of the thing for the things themselves.

Often these things end up as the insights, opportunities, and adjectives that will define a company’s strategy. Unbundling ‘organizations’ allows you to recognize the components for a ‘learning organization’ or an ‘agile organization.’ Unbundling ‘parents’ as a customer base allows you to recognize the components of ‘busy moms’ as a segment. Unbundling ‘media’ to its multitude of channels brings you the ‘media mix’ and the practice of communications planning to execute on those differences.

At it’s best, noticing is about identifying un-named elements and giving them language.

Innovation and change start by noticing things that are within arm’s reach:

Let us begin by turning our attention away from the controversy of technoscientific innovations and their associated Big Futures. Instead, let us focus on ‘mundane’ technologies. Of course, as actor-network theorists have long insisted, technoscientific innovations depend on the mundane: without everyday technologies such as pencils, plugs and paperclips, innovations could be neither forged nor implemented [..]

However, mundane objects can also be understood as the ‘media’ of Big Futures. They are lenses through which we can pursue the analysis of society at a grand scale. - Enacting big futures, little futures: toward an ecology of futures

If you can notice what is already there you can do something with it today.

Naming

Naming, on the other hand, is a tool for alignment, action, and change, not insight. It reduces a thing’s many components into a singular idea. A narrow frame. A name.

This compression is useful:

Here’s a good test of how strategically aligned a company is. Walk up to anyone in the company in the hallway and ask them if they know what their current top priority or mission is. Can they recite it from memory?

What Jeff [Bezos] understood was the power of rhetoric. Time spent coming up with the right words to package a key concept in a memorable way was time well spent. People fret about what others say about them when they’re not in the room, but Jeff was solving the issue of getting people to say what he’d say when he wasn’t in the room. - compress to impress

But it comes with a cost. As language is processed through an organization we forget that it’s shorthand. We forget the compression. The distance between the name and thing increases, and the opportunity in the things themselves decreases.

When new people come into contact with a name but feel unable to ask “what does that mean?” problems arise. Justifications for action, the means by which organizations change and succeed, begin to fall back on increasingly internal proxies for urgently external realities. You begin to realize that what was named because it gave you focus is beginning to blind you.

All of this gives power to old words, and old word makers. Language is a problem.

Organizations that can change are organizations that are constantly pressuring their language to reflect reality, and constantly examining reality to renew language.

So it’s useful every now and again to unbundle your language to the things it represents:

From Words to Images

This exercise comes from an insight by the imagist poet Ezra Pound on the ability of different languages to ‘stay poetic’.

Phonetic languages - languages written with letters that represent sounds - trend towards abstraction upon examination:

Thus if you ask him what red is, he says it is a ‘color.’ If you ask him what a color is, he tells you it is a vibration or a refraction of light, or a division of the spectrum.

And if you ask him what vibration is, he tells you it is a mode of energy, or something of that sort, until you arrive at a modality of being, or non-being, or at any rate you get beyond your depth, and beyond his depth.

Ideographic languages, on the other hand - language built on graphic characters that represent the meaning of the thing and not the sound of the language - are built on the knowledge of the thing. Speaking of the Chinese ideogram:

He is to define red. How can he do it in a picture that isn’t painted in red paint. He puts (or his ancestor put) together the abbreviated pictures of:

ROSE CHERRY IRON RUST FLAMINGO

The Chinese ‘word’ or ideogram for red is based on something everyone knows.

We can use the idea of ideograms to unbundle the language of an organization.

The Pound Exercise - How to unbundle your language in 3 easy steps

You can do this by yourself, but it’s best with colleagues where you’ll be more likely to surprise yourself and each other.

Step 1: Choose your term. Any term that you feel justified in asking “what do we mean by that?” will do. Write it at the top of a sheet of paper.

Step 2: Draw a pound sign (#) on the paper. You’ll end up with a 3x3 grid. This is the structure of your ideogram.

Step 3: Draw your term. Fill each box with a “picture” that represents the term. Remember the Chinese character for ‘red’ from above. What are the polaroids that would represent the ideas the term has bundled together? What are the contexts the word is shorthand for?

Show, don’t tell.

Here’s an example from an engagement with an online video platform that wanted to uncover new ways to drive value for “independent musicians.”

“What do we mean by ‘independent musician?’”

The name wraps up a number of contexts.

Starting from the top left and moving left to right we have:

  1. A band performing to a live crowd
  2. Musicians on tour
  3. Selling merch at a show
  4. Getting paid by a club owner
  5. Loading and unloading gear
  6. A music video
  7. A writing and/or recording session
  8. A show bill
  9. A musician talking to the local press

Each of these provides a new context for insight, alignment, and action. Each provides a space to ask “how might we…,” and shift the name closer to the thing it represents.

Anti-language, Cant and Crytpolects

Every force of change is also a force of resistance, and language is no exception. Inside every organization, there will appear anti-language, cant and cryptolects.

They are less languages in the full sense of the word than “special languages,” that is, forms of discourse that result from the modification of given tongues according to rules known only to a select few. It suffices to apply certain special principles to the vocabulary and grammar of a language to obtain idioms, which, while altogether dependent on existing linguistic systems, may be effectively impenetrable to the untrained ear. Strictly speaking, they constitute not so much secret languages, therefore, as secret uses of languages. At times, they have been called “anti-languages,” for they serve the interests of “anti-societies” that strive to protect themselves from threatening majorities. - Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues & Riddlers

Language is, after all, political, and the future is always a threatening majority to the present, and the past.

So, if you want to be an organization designed for change, notice the world closely, name it carefully, and refactor your language (and anti-language) continuously.

Carefully.


Links:

Notes on the Role of Leadership and Language in Regenerating Organizations

The Little Grey Book” is simply wonderful. A meditation on organizational culture, language and change:

“Managers understand the organization’s past behavior.
But this knowledge,
and the language that accompanies it,
limit their vision
of the organization’s potential future state.

Using the language of the past,
managers may try to provide a vision for the future
.
But it is an old future—
a memory of what the future could be.

Managers may strive for fundamental change,
but their language prevents them from achieving it.”


New Language, New Behavior

This wonderful quote from Ursula K Le Guin herself on the power and problems of language:

We can’t restructure our society without restructuring the English language. One reflects the other. A lot of people are getting tired of the huge pool of metaphors that have to do with war and conflict [and] the proliferation of battle metaphors, such as being a warrior, righting, defeating, and so on. In response, I could say that once you become conscious of these battle metaphors, you can start “fighting” against them. That’s one option. Another is to realize that conflict is not the only human response to a situation and to begin to find other metaphors, such as resisting, outwitting, skipping, or subverting. This kind of consciousness can open the door to all sorts of new behavior.


Notation and Language

Not notion, notation - from the wonderful Katherine Ye an entire syllabus on how notation and thinking interact:

This syllabus examines the design of notation. We concern ourselves chiefly with one question: how does working in a particular notational system influence the ways that people think and create in it?


This week: Tom is putting together a pitch called “products of media” on how media companies should think about building digital products. Brian is mapping the DeFi landscape.

That’s it for Little Futures 03. See you next week.


Little Futures is a research and consultancy studio from Brian Dell and Tom Critchlow to make futures thinking less abstract and more grounded - to shine a light on what we call “arm’s-length futures.”

With a background in creative strategy, media, startups & consulting we are experimenting with building a new kind of research studio to navigate new kinds of futures - Little Futures.

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