The language frames the story

Suppose you’ve said to me that “the falling maple leaves whirl in a delicate dance with the gentle breeze.” It’s late fall, so it feels like a reasonable thing to say. The trouble is, my language only has words like “eat, fight, run, here, that, there, now, later.” I might be fascinated by what you’ve said, but get very little out of it — and even less to pass on to others. At best, I will point at the sky and say “that!” and bulge my eyes meaningfully.

This might seem like one of those — duh! — obvious observations. Of course the language frames the story. However, I am finding that I easily forget this in the contexts of teams and how they are organized. To communicate with each other, teams establish a common language, a set of semantic shortcuts that allow them to work together effectively. This is where the non-obvious bits hide. This common language also frames what is being communicated.

For example, let’s imagine a hypothetical organization where communicating strategy across teams is done through a list of annual objectives and key results (OKRs). There is a process to assemble them into a coherent whole. When it’s all said and done, the story written in the language of OKRs tells where we will go next year.

However, some of our desired destinations take longer than a year to reach. To communicate these destinations, we need a language that can describe ideas that last longer than a year. Can you guess what happens when we try to express them in the language that only speaks in year-long sentences? Sure, within teams there might be long-term thinking and sound strategic artifacts. However, given the pidgin of annual OKRs that prevails outside, it is unlikely that these artifacts survive cross-team communication. The multi-year ideas will be neatly chopped or scrunched into the one-year box — rendering them as useful as my eye-bulging-while-pointing.

If I am lucky enough to work in an organization full of brilliant individuals, I will also start seeing these folks adapt to the common language. More and more, I will see how they pick out ideas that fit within the language to reduce the friction, making sure that only year-long journeys are those that count, whether in impact or attention of leads. Sure, there will still be the linguistic idealists who rail helplessly trying to overcome the limits of the OKR pidgin, but those will eventually give up and leave.

While the organization wonders why it struggles to think strategically, it might be worth it to examine the language it uses to organize itself. Is the language flexible enough to accommodate both short-term and long-term destinations? Are all ideas that matter expressible in the semantic shorthand that everyone is expected to speak?

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