Is language & jargon a barrier to innovation?

“If you cannot explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” – Albert Einstein

I remember as a student in my first year of uni being told that my degree would prepare me to be the bridge between IT and business. At the time I didn’t understand why this would be needed. But it did sound very exciting.

These days my role is to elicit, discover and invent requirements for both large scale European projects and small knowledge transfer projects. Put very simply, I’m the person who figures out what new systems that involve both humans and technology should do. I’m the link in the chain of developing new systems that works to understand the needs of the people in the system and communicates this to those who will build the technology part of the system.

This takes me into a variety of domains, from dementia care to food chains, which I need to become familiar with over a relatively short amount of time in order to discover requirements, redesign work and social processes, then help to invent new ways for technology to support these. In each domain the biggest learning curve is getting to grips with the language shared by the professionals in that domain.

This learning curve can be a barrier to collaboration and creativity between professionals from different domains. We are so used to thinking that using big words and jargon makes us look clever, like we know what we’re talking about. Some even use jargon as a way of excluding those not in the know from understanding the conversation, but more often than not it is just a habit. One we need to get out of when we come together to work creatively.

Teams made up of people from many different areas of an organisation can be a fantastic resource for identifying and creating opportunities, though only if they can communicate their ideas on a level that is understood by everyone in the room. In the book, “The Knowing-Doing Gap: How smart companies turn knowledge into action”, Robert Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer argue that “Simple talk is valuable because it is more likely to lead to action. It is less possible to second guess or dispute simple, direct ideas. One may disagree with a simple idea or a simple philosophy, but that is transparent at the outset. Second guessing and finger pointing are largely precluded when the organisation operates on the basis of simple, straightforward ideas and language.” They’ve got a point, don’t you think?

I spend a fair amount of my time in projects acting as a translator. I have to wonder how much further we could get if we all just used simple talk?

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About Kristine Karlsen Pitts
Kristine is a researcher at the Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice at City University London. She has a background in human centred design and requirements engineering with a focus on helping clients elicit, discover and invent goals, objectives and requirements for socio-technical systems. She is a creative workshops/problem solving facilitator and has trained as a Synectics Facilitator Trainer. Kristine is also a student on the Masters in Innovation Creativity and Leadership - the MICL. http://creativity.city.ac.uk/kristine_karlsen

4 Responses to Is language & jargon a barrier to innovation?

  1. nickdevoil says:

    Hi Kristine

    Yes, I do believe that language can be a barrier to innovation, but I look at it from a different angle..

    Certainly excessive jargon is a pain, and there seems to be an epidemic of pretentious language both in the business context and more generally these days. If you haven’t already seen it, you might enjoy George Orwell’s superb essay “Politics and the English Language” where he offers the following rules for writing:

    “1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    3. f it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

    However, I think that the use of simple language carries its own dangers too. This is because language constrains our thought. I believe that Orwell is misleading when he instructs the writer to ask first: “What am I trying to say?” and then “What words will express it?”, because our thoughts are actually shaped by the language we speak, as well as vice versa. Benjamin Lee Whorf and Wittgenstein wrote about this. Orwell does acknowledge this reflexivity when he says “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”.

    As soon as we use a particular word, or set of words, to refer to something, we have pinned it down and allocated it a place, not only in our thinking but probably also in our system of values. Politicians and practitioners in advertising and propaganda know this well – the more simply and clearly an idea appears to be expressed, the more easily the listener can be induced to adopt the speaker’s accompanying value judgement unquestioningly. So actually I think finger-pointing can be helped rather than hindered by the use of simple language. It’s interesting that your final quotation is co-authored by Jeffrey Pfeffer, because his “Managing with Power” shows a clear awareness of this symbolic and political potential of language.

    Working on systems projects, particularly innovative ones where “second-order change” is required, I see more problems caused by one-dimensional thinking than by jargon. Unreflective reliance on simple language can be both symptom and cause of this. I do agree it’s very important to be attentive to our own and each others’ use of language, but sometimes perhaps the challenge is to do with not shutting down avenues of thought prematurely and by “unpacking” the things that people say. Sometimes that calls for a lot of words!

    Nick

    • Hi Nick,

      You make an excellent point in that there is such a thing as over simplifying. I was thinking more along the lines of bringing the language into a form that everyone in a creative session can follow. I find that it can take a lot more words to put something simply.

      I just had to Google “Second-order change”. It’s not a term I’m familiar with, though after looking it up I have come across the concept of it before, though not in detail. You could have chosen to explain it in more words instead of using the term. My point in the blog post was that even if I had heard of “Second-order change” before, my understanding of it might have been different to yours. Explaining what you meant by it would have taken more words, and would have ensured that we both shared an understanding of what was meant by the term. This is where simple language can be powerful.

      I agree that we should be more active in ‘unpacking’ what is being said. When facilitating creative workshops I push people to do this with their own ideas by asking them to first headline their idea, and then say some more about the thinking behind it. It’s surprising what can come out of unpacking the ideas.

      I have come across George Orwell before, and had since forgotten. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

      Kristine

  2. On balance I would say no.

    John Meada in his book, The Laws of Simplicity maintains that simplicity and complexity need each other, although finding the balance is difficult. He goes on to describe it as a kind of “mathematical graph going upwards to complexity and downwards to simplicity, then upward to complexity and back down ad infinitum”. He describes this as rythm, which is grounded in the modulation of difference.

    He goes on to discuss “feeling the beat” in a musical metaphor and uses the example of “complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, simplicity”. Simplicity becomes the salvation.

    Better to have something like… simplicity, simplicity, simplicity, complexity, simplicity, simplicity, simplicity, complexity.

    This week I was struck by the announcements from CERN and thought it interesting when the assembled group burst into spontaneous applause as the spokesman revealed the results of recent research. The significance of the findings were completely lost on me though.

    According to John Maeda the first rule of simplicity is “Reduce – The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction”.

    That can be complex.

    • I like the idea that simplicity and complexity need each other, that there is a rhythm to it, and I think I prefer to tip the scale in the “beat” towards simplicity as you suggest. Sometimes when coming up with new solutions to complex problems you need to stop and take things “back to basics” to check that you are still going in the right direction. Or you might get so carried away by the brilliance of your new solution that you forget why you needed it in the first place.

      A favourite quote of mine goes: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” – Albert Einstein

      It sums up how I feel about the CERN discovery. They have pushed the boundaries of modern science beyond it’s known limits and re-defined what we know, and for that I applaud them. We should stretch our boundaries and explore. But what is it for? What is the benefit of knowing? That, they have failed to communicate to me. Maybe they don’t know yet. Maybe it will become highly useful. I just have to wonder if their brilliant minds and extensive funds might have been better invested elsewhere?

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