How The Language You Use Is Blocking Your Business Growth

Dr Andy Bass, founder of BassClusker Consulting, explains how the language used within your business is potentially blocking its growth.  

‘Artificial’ intelligence and real confusion

How do you know if an AI really is intelligent? The classic answer is to apply the Turing Test, an experiment proposed by World War Two codebreaker and computing pioneer Alan Turing. The Test places language at the centre of things. Here it is in modern terms: Imagine you are conversing over a ‘Live chat’. If you can’t distinguish a ChatBot from a real person, then the ChatBot can be said to be intelligent.

The first promising attempt at the test was a classic 1960s AI program called ELIZA. Developed by Joseph Weizenbaum, ELIZA parodied a ‘non-directive’ psychotherapist. It convinced quite a few people and led to wildly optimistic predictions that AI was nearly here. The claims shocked Weizenbaum, because he of course knew how the system worked. It was a neat program, but truly intelligent? Not even close.

ELIZA worked by simply selecting some portion of what you typed in, and using that portion to build its next question. So if you typed:

“I am depressed.”

Eliza might reply:

“Oh, I am sorry to hear that you are depressed. When did it start?”

It is easy enough to see how ELIZA works: basically through a set of rules telling it to shuffle words about (to convert “I” to “you”, “am” to “are” and so on). A few tens of such rules went a long way. Versions exist on the Internet, and if you try one you will find that it’s amazing how convincing such ‘word shuffling’ can be.

Now consider the following dialogue (which I have only heard about a gazillion times in conversations among managers about growth issues):

“We have a sales problem.”

“OK, let’s get some sales training.”

“We have a staff empowerment problem.”

“This empowerment programme is specially designed to address that.”

“We have a credit control problem.”

“Let’s buy this new credit control software.”

In each case, the ‘ELIZA prescription’ is simply to take the word ‘problem’ out of the description of the issue, and substitute in a word such as ‘training’, ‘programme’, ‘software’. Bingo, you’ve got your answer. If you assert an ‘ELIZA prescription’ confidently, it’s amazing how often people will nod uncritically and move on to the next item on the agenda, feeling like a decision has been taken. Consider the first example above – a requirement to improve sales. Sales training may sound like a good idea, but it will be totally ineffective in these common situations:

  • Timid salespeople unsuited to the role
  • Outdated products which customers are ignoring in favour of the competition
  • An unfair formal incentive system
  • Discouraging informal incentives
  • A sales manager who is playing favourites
  • Hard-to-use tools and processes
  • Influential role-models who are conspicuously thriving even though they violate company values
  • Outdated beliefs about the ‘way we do things here’
  • A divisive manager you should have dealt with ages ago

Will an ELIZA prescription—a generic solution such as a bought-in course, programme or system—meet your unique requirement? It’s hit-and-miss at best.

Plain word techniques

Here are some disciplines to help you to see through the bewitching effects of ‘artificial’ intelligence and ELIZA-prescribed generic solutions, and so improve the speed of your organisation’s growth.

1.Be wary of pre-packaged solutions looking for problems

These include generic training seminars, change programmes with a fixed number of steps, management fads, productivity software and personality tests. Ask salespeople, internal recommenders and ‘experts’: “How do you know this generic approach will fit in our particular situation?”

2.Turn abstract nouns back into verbs, and ask “How, specifically?”

For example:

  • ‘Leadership’: who is leading whom to do what? How are they doing it? What happens as a result?
  • ‘Engagement’: who is engaging with whom? How specifically are they doing it?
  • ‘Transformation’: What specifically is being transformed into what? How specifically? How will we know it’s been transformed?
  • ‘Agility’: What is being done in an agile way? By whom? How specifically?

You’re looking for a clear and unambiguous answer to the question: “What do we need to see and hear to know it’s happening the way we need it to?” Don’t tolerate, “Trust me, we’ll just know.”

3. Escape from fixed categories by changing the label

Ask, “What if we thought of this apparent sales problem as if it were actually a leadership problem, an operations problem, a finance problem? Try lots of labels.

4. Get concrete: Use the Before-and-After Documentary technique

Too many changes are described in vague language. We want to “go from good to great”, or “get to the next level”, or we want to resolve “communication issues” or “get people to take ownership”. These are all fine as starting points, but they need to be nailed down if you want more than vague results.

Try responding to statements such as those above by saying the following: “Imagine we did a Before-and-After documentary about the change process. The film crew would film the current situation, and then would come back once the change has occurred and film again. What differences would you want to see and hear on the two playbacks? Tell me what you’d need so you’d say: “LOOK! LISTEN! That’s the difference. That’s how I know they have taken ownership / that we’re now great / that we’re now at the next level”. 

Look past business school categories

When we’re too quick to label issues in terms of the subjects studied in business school (a leadership problem, an operations problem, a strategy problem, a finance problem) we risk being bewitched by the idea that someone has a pre-designed ‘solution’ for exactly that issue. Of course it’s appealing to think that such an approach will work, but it can just as easily send you off in the wrong direction; often an issue which surfaces in one place has its roots elsewhere.

In contrast, when you describe issues and desired outcomes in very plain words, you may be surprised to find that your own people can sort them out with minimal outside assistance. And if they can’t, you’ll be far better prepared to brief people who can help.

Andy Bass PhD is the author of Start With What Works: a faster way to grow your business, published by Pearson Business.

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