Back to Top

Word Power: How do we depict our organisations?

I’ve increasingly been struck this year with the strength of the notion that the way the problem is understood and depicted determines what we do.  And the idea that language is generative is becoming more alive to me in all the recent work we’ve been up to. 

 

Talking about organisations, for example, as open, complex (not complicated!) living networks, requiring healthy feedback loops, living with uncertainty and conflict as part of the terrain, where a member affects the whole and the whole affects each member produces very different results from talking about organisations as if they were closed structures to be managed…

 

When I offer this description to clients (with huge tribute to Complexity Theory and Systems Thinking) and we work with it, I’ve been noticing space opening up for new directions and possibilities.  What are some of those? 

 

  1. Individuals recognise their part in providing feedback, however daunting, because to withhold their feedback deprives the ‘complex adaptive system’ – their organisation - the chance to learn, adapt and grow. Our language here becomes less about checking, appraising and extracting; more about daring to offer and listen

 

  1. A genuine connection with the purpose of the organisation is re-kindled – or as the Japanese word ‘ikigai’ coveys - its reason for being.  The language here becomes less about obligations and requirements; more about the change we want to be part of

 

  1. Closely linked to members embracing their organisation’s purpose is a change in the notion of accountability.  It becomes less grave and demanding…the leadership function is not burdened with somehow having to instil accountability and individuals are more open to hold personal accountability. The language here becomes less about upwards accountability to donors, less about compliance, less about making an account of yourself to me/us – and more about downwards accountability to our ultimate stakeholders and what we each are always accountable for – i.e. our own ethics and behaviour

 

  1. With increased displays of personal accountability, motivation and energy appears to grow, and lots of natural innovations and solutions can start lighting up the system at different points. The language here becomes less about managing change and more about allowing space for autonomy and creativity

 

  1. The ‘agency’ we often claim to be seeking for our ultimate stakeholders actually starts to happen within our own organisations: dynamic relationships and connectivity start to spark,  under self-organising principles, in cross-functional teams, in project working groups, in matrix configurations, in unexpected collaborations and in external links. The language here becomes less about formal hierarchies and more about networks

 

  1. The machinery of monitoring and evaluation is questioned. The language tends to be less about proving (with checks and measuring and controls) and more about improving our contribution to a compelling purpose

 

  1. We see more evidence that members of this living system will tackle conversations that matter and that may have been avoided – because these are faced for the betterment of the whole and that whole has a central purpose we believe in. The language here becomes less about blame and circumventing and more about tackling and resolving

 

It’s claimed we face volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) times - where ‘wicked problems’ abound – that’s to say problems whose solutions require a great number of people to change mind-sets and behaviour. 

How do we depict our organisations in language which can engender the types of mind-set and behaviour changes needed for them to flourish in these times?

How do I describe my own organisation – as a structure or an organism – and where does that language take me?

 

Ruth Jolly

May 2018

Consultants: Ruth Jolly

Tags: leadership, words, language



"I keep six honest serving-men
 (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When 
 And How and Where and Who."

-Rudyard Kipling