An organization is a living system, and language is the defining environment in which a system lives. An organization increases its efficiency by creating and refining a shared language. Starting from this premise, Paul Pangaro and Dr. Michael Geoghegan identify some important insights for organizational change.
Insight 1: An organization is its language
Ultimately, an organization consists of conversations: who talks to whom, about what. Each conversation is recognized, selected, and amplified (or ignored) by the system. Decisions, actions, and a sense of valid purpose grow out of these conversations. Conversation leads to agreement. Agreement leads to transaction.
Therefore, an organization’s language is critically important. It becomes more than simply a means for communication. It becomes a field for action, and a way of constructing truth. It becomes the basis for all transactions, the basis for all business.
Insight 2: Organizations seek equilibrium in behaviour and language
The organization naturally resists new learning, change, and the stress of evolution. Yet while this language fosters efficiency, it also limits the organization’s ability to evolve.
Constrained by its limited vocabulary, the organization becomes unable to adapt to fundamental changes in its environment. Unable to change, the organization eventually declines.
Insight 3: Narrowing language increases effıciency
Organizations create their own internal language to solve specific problems. This language serves as a kind of shorthand: managers use it every day, knowing they will be clearly understood. This internal language is designed to address the needs of the present-day business. It helps the organization’s managers answer familiar questions and thus increases efficiencies.
Over time, this internal language grows increasingly specialized—and narrow.
Insight 4: Narrowing language also increases ignorance
The organization’s internal language is designed to help managers facilitate present-day business, not look beyond it. Using the internal language, managers increase efficiencies, but cannot recognize new fields of research, new discoveries, new approaches. Like all of us, they cannot recognize their own limitations. Constrained by the previously successful language, we do not know that we do not know. Consequently, we think we know and thus cannot learn.
Developed as a tool to increase efficiencies, the organization’s language, paradoxically, becomes a trap.
Insight 5: Past language limits future vision
Managers understand the organization’s past behavior. But this knowledge, and the language that accompanies it, limit their vision of the organization’s potential future state. Using the language of the past, managers may try to provide a vision for the future. But it is an old future, a memory of what the future could be.
Managers may strive for fundamental change, but their language prevents them from achieving it.
Insight 6: Expanding language increases opportunity
The conversations necessary for creating fundamental change do not come naturally. They pose questions that cannot be understood in the organization’s present language. The conversations necessary for generating new opportunities come from outside the system. Their language has a different history. It is often technically and intellectually demanding. Consequently, it is often dismissed.
For an organization to survive, it must be able to acquire new, relevant language domains.
Final insight: to regenerate an organization, create a new language
To support an organization’s future viability, effective decision makers actively introduce change into the system.
They do so by generating new language that appropriate groups in the organization come to understand and embrace. This new language does not overtly challenge the pre-existing, efficient system, but rather creates new distinctions and supportive relationships.
In this way, decision makers act as interlocutors and incubators of systemic change.
Adapted from Notes on the Role of Leadership and Language in Regenerating Organizations, based on conversations that took place in 2002 with Dr. Paul Pangaro and Dr. Michael Geoghegan in Sun Microsystems, December 14, 2002.