A couple of months ago I facilitated some digital strategy sessions at a smaller organisation. Everything was going well and participants debated energetically with each other. After a while, however, it became apparent to me that every discussion, every game, every assignment resulted in the same two groups discussing a variation of the same theme. Although the group explored lots of options, they continued to disagree on the same thing, all the time.

Taking a step back, I realised it all came down to two different ideas about the word ‘digital’. Although participants thought they were talking about the same thing, in reality they could as well have been speaking different languages. I paused the session, had a little debate about the meaning of ‘digital’ and together we decided on a shared language to use for the different ideas within the group. After that, the sessions really got going.

A shared language for ideas is key to turning your ideas into action. Even when people have the same mother tongue and have been working in the same office for years, it doesn’t mean they define words in the same way.

“Shared language refers to people developing understanding amongst themselves based on language (e.g. spoken, text) to help them communicate more effectively.” (source)

A simple exercise to see to what extend your organisation has a shared language for ideas, take the 3 to 5 central words in your mission statement (“open”, “platform”, “network”, etc.) and ask your direct colleagues to define them in the context of your organisation. If you want ideas about the future to become reality, people should understand what others mean when they use one of these words. 

Creating a shared language for ideas

To create a shared language for ideas in your organisation, first you’ll need to find the key words and expressions that make up the language, then define them, use them widely and finally (and continuously) refine their meaning in a changing context.

  1. Find the words and expressions that make up your shared language for ideas
    Even the most innocent word can have a different meaning from its dictionary definition in your context. Listen carefully to words repeatedly being used to talk about ideas and the future in your organisation (hopefully, these will be similar to the core values of your organisation), then focus on the non-specific ones. A number is obvious to everyone (“10 euros”), a descriptive adjective less so (“inspirational”). Corporate clichés are especially relevant to note down (“Excel at building meaningful relationships”).
  2. Discuss the different interpretations of each word and define them
    Preferably in group setting, ask people what they mean when they use a word or expression from the shared language. To make this easier, ask them to tell two things: what is the scope of the word and what is behaviour that comes with it. Try to make it tangible. Take for instance the word ‘open’: does this mean you will publish your salary online? Does it mean you will allow racist comments on the corporate blog? After hearing everybody out, find the common ground in their definitions: this is how the organisation defines a word or phrase.
  3. Advocate the use of the shared language
    Please do not create a dictionary for the shared language in your organisation, but simply use the words and expressions whenever relevant.
  4. Refine the meaning of words and expressions in the shared language
    Like real languages, with the possible exception of Latin, a shared language for ideas is a living language. The definition of words and expressions in the context of your organisation will change, probably even faster than in the real world. Accept this and make sure the shared language for ideas reflects the reality of these ideas. It’s useless to be a purist, for instance about concepts such as ‘2.0’ which, yes, seems ridiculous when combined with things such as ‘child care’ and ‘management retreat’, but no, is a battle you cannot win. Sorry.

Everybody plays an important role in creating and maintaining a shared language for ideas. Although new words are often introduced by outside consultants, just like slang new expressions can be brought into organisations by young people as well.

A shared language to share ideas

Sometimes words and expressions in a shared language become so powerful that they become ideas in themselves. A great example is the video below which I’ve been showing in workshops and presentations around the world ever since it was put online. In it, Kevin Allocca introduces 3 concepts that themselves become ideas.

“Tastemakers, creative participating communities, complete unexpectedness — these are characteristics of a new kind of media and a new kind of culture.” – Kevin Allocca

The word ‘tastemakers’ is so powerful that in my practice it has replaced an older word (‘key influencers’) which I used to say the same thing. Because it’s such a powerful word, I now receive emails of people asking me to help them identify ‘tastemakers’ relevant to their projects or industry. In some organisations I know, the idea of a ‘tastemaker’ has grown so powerful that it is transforming the way they look at public relations in general.

Certainly, you use such words or expressions to communicate ideas. It’s a small step to making them part of the shared language for ideas for your organisation (email the video to everybody, write the definition on a blackboard in the lunch room, print it on a t-shirt).

From words to deeds

Of course, a shared language for ideas only helps you and your colleagues talk with each other without misunderstandings. No matter how powerful a shared word or expression, a language itself doesn’t do anything. Therefore it is important to have at least one shared expression that looks at a better future, is energising and ambitious and gets everybody going. Such an expression is often called your mission or vision and for such a statement to inspire everyday action, it needs to do a lot of the things a shared language does. What exactly is a topic of the next post in this series. Please stay tuned!

Do you have a shared language? What words and expressions do you use to communicate ideas and what is their meaning?

Photo by Derek A.

Other posts in the series

Introduction – A Shared Language for Ideas – Living the future – Capacity and team building