Actions and the Language of Change

Actions speak the language of change by making it visible. Talking about change shapes our actions, so let’s talk carefully.

Change, real change of substance, is considerably difficult to orchestrate. Even in the presence of threats, opportunities, internal drive, and lack of alternate options, change is difficult to encourage, stimulate, motivate, and sustain in individuals, organizations, and communities.

There is no shortage of theories, models, hacks, nudges, and techniques that are in circulation to promote change. Missing from much of this is evidence that they work, well.

Maybe that should be a sign.

One of the biggest challenges is that our language and our actions are not well-aligned. The way we speak about change and the actions we take tell us much about how change actually happens, not just how we think or want it to happen.

Burning platforms and other lies

One of the most common business-speak phrases for change is the ‘burning platform‘ –a metaphorical term meant to reflect the urgency of a situation. The metaphor, inspired from real-world situations where an oil platform catches fire, is meant to imply a sense of urgency for change: do it or get burned.

On a real burning platform the options for survival are: 1) fight the fire successfully or 2) get off the platform. It’s a dire, but pretty straightforward situation.

In most human systems, the situation is anything but straightforward. We are encountering social situations that are dynamic, markets that are rapidly changing and evolving, and networks that are interacting to support and limit our options. There are few times when we face a dichotomous option set.

Something funny happens when you use a term that doesn’t fit: people don’t respond.

In healthcare, the concept of the burning platform has been used often to discuss many issues, implying that if we don’t innovate or change, the whole system will collapse. We’ve heard this kind of language for thirty years with different terms. The system isn’t functioning as it could, it’s expensive, it lags other areas in being user-friendly or patient-forward, and it’s slow to adopt new innovations — but it’s not burning.

It’s no surprise that we still see little transformative change in healthcare in a manner that aligns with this call-to-action. For example, eHealth was expected to usher in a new wave of transparency, access and evidence-informed healthcare and more than 20 years after it gained widespread attention we’re still waiting for this to be realized.

But a funny thing happens when we focus on crisis language for change: we motivate radical actions or we create inertia.

We also risk focusing our measurement and evaluation efforts — the real markers of change — on the wrong things.

Alternative options

Focusing on the radical change draws our attention to metrics of transformation and associated time-scales. It’s perhaps no surprise that so many of the innovations we see implemented to encourage change, real systems change, fail to produce the results we want. We might be expecting too much or we’re measuring the wrong things.

Radical change focuses attention on the agent of change, not the system. The agent might be the person, group, technology, or tool, while the system is all of the things that interact with it.

Another issue is that this kind of language focuses us on what we are doing to the system to promote change, not what other things are doing to facilitate change with our intervention from the system. As the image above suggests, we create our own worlds of perception when we describe things in certain ways. These worlds might be convenient, but they aren’t necessarily effective.

Consider this: Next time you’re looking at a system problem try looking at the problem from the system itself. As odd as it sounds, consider what the system is getting from the status quo, who is benefiting, what activities are generating energy or dissipating it, and how different timescales might affect the situation.

Doing this can help you frame the language in which you speak about the situation and what you wish to do. This can also get us re-imagining the possible options available to us and how we might measure (and amplify) success. Burning platforms don’t allow for much room to move — unless diving off them is your preferred option for change.

Re-thinking our words and how we use them can transform our actions just as they can help us see new options in the actions we are taking to make change happen. It’s not just words, it’s worlds.

Photos by Alexandra on Unsplash and  Matt Hardy on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

3 thoughts on “Actions and the Language of Change

  • September 23, 2019 at 8:57 pm
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    Cameron, I’ve been on your mailing list for maybe 18 months and it’s always an interesting, well-reasoned read. And I just wanted to say thanks! Tracey

    Reply
    • September 24, 2019 at 8:38 am
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      Hi Tracey, Thank you so much for taking the time to provide a comment. This was very kind and generous of you; it’s wonderful to hear from those who read my blog. I’m glad it’s providing some value to you and thanks for reading!

      Reply
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