He Said – She Said – They Said – We Said

Jun 04, 2011 1 Comment by

One of the more famous movie lines from the 1960’s comes from the Paul Newman classic “Cool Hand Luke”.  A road prison guard (played by the late, great character actor Strother Martin) addressed what he had just discovered to be the reason why a prisoner named Luke (played by Newman) keeps trying to escape:

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

In my last post, I described a common challenge that Change Agents face when communicating large-scale changes that cross organizational lines. The differences in terminology can be mind-blowing at best and downright dangerous at worst.

What to Do? I recommend that change teams synchronize terms well in advance of rolling out a change. On one of my past change projects, the buzzword variations between work sites made it hard to even compare processes until we first laid all the terms side-by-side and developed a shared understanding.

I advise Change Agents who encounter what I call “buzzword overlap” to work openly with their corporate team and local representatives within the various business units to do eight things:

1. Methodically Draw out Differences in Terminology.  It’s important that the team spend time learning the precise language and buzzwords of the stakeholders from the various components of the organization that will be impacted by the change. Capture what these groups call things, but also introduce them to the terms others use. Gather their feedback on how the terms might be clarified or reconciled.  This first wave of data gathering should produce a robust list of candidate terms, potential duplicates and local variations.

2. Take Note of What’s NOT Changing. In many cases, the buzzwords used for certain items across the organization will not differ all that much.  I encourage teams to spell out these items for two good reasons. First, it provides clarity. Second, it gives people a bit more confidence that they already know something about the future state.  Making sure people know what is NOT changing can sometimes be just as important as introducing the new stuff.

3. Combine & Consolidate: By facilitating a process of combining and consolidating terms where it makes sense, Change Agents can get a jump start on stakeholder adoption. (Be sure to involve those with real authority to name things so you can build buy-in for the new terms as you build the list.)

One way to really leverage this step is to directly involve stakeholders from the impacted community in the process.  For example, look for volunteers and send the draft list around to a handful of “champions” for review. Ask them to verify that the new consolidated list accomplishes the following two things simultaneously:

  • Does the list contain everything it should? (Is the list sufficient?)
  • Does everything on the list need to be there? (Is each term necessary?)

4. Deal With Dupes: In some cases, it may make sense to allow parallel or duplicate terms to coexist. Here’s an example I experienced first hand as a customer of both Delta and Northwest Airlines prior to their recent merger: As a member of both frequent flier programs, I noticed that Northwest and Delta had dozens of duplicate terms and it appears that they allowed many of them to co-exist over the course of several months.

Perhaps their team decided it was easier to hold off on changing either frequent flier program until the more critical parts of the merger process were complete to avoid confusing customers.  From a customer perspective, it looks like they rolled the terminology consolidation for the customer loyalty program into a single change event for stakeholders like me.

So as you seek to limit the number of duplicate terms, be aware that the strategic goals of your change may require you to allow a few. You may also find that stakeholders only recognize duplicate terms as being redundant after you publish the first iteration of the list, so check back for newly-discovered duplicates from time to time.


5. Handle Local Variations: Decide up front if the team is going to be able to accommodate local variation for some things.  For example, if you are consolidating the customer-facing sales websites of two merged companies, you will probably have to chose a single name for the “shopping cart” feature.  However, if your merged company works internationally, you may not have a choice but to allow the term for “shopping cart” to be translated into several local languages along with the rest of the website content.  (Beware: sometimes translation can lead to other challenges when the local language doesn’t contain an exact correlation!) Clarify what variations (if any) will be allowed and capture the precise meanings of those local variations.

6. Create a “Cross-Walk” List. I encourage teams to develop a mapping of terms from the old to the new as early as possible, even if the first iteration looks like a mess.  Build upon this list as new buzzwords are uncovered and don’t be surprised if the definitions become more crisp as you broaden the list of stakeholders and implementation sites. On one of my recent projects I helped a client implement an online purchasing system that introduced some obvious terminology changes and we used a 2-column table to show stakeholders the brand new terms that were coming, the old terms that were going away and a few terms that were only changing in subtle ways.

7. Build Consensus: Once you have a solid vernacular established, verify that there is consensus among your team and stakeholder representatives for the new combined & coordinated terminology map.  (I usually recommend building the list with representatives from the middle layers of the organization, then going up the org chart to get sponsorship before cascading the new list down & throughout the company.)

8. Go Forth with the Full-Scale Adoption Process. Leverage your terminology map as you roll out your change and involve all of your stakeholders in the communication and training effort. Be ready for new terminology differences and overlaps to surface as the rollout goes on.  Many times the exact words used to describe processes, events, outcomes and roles are deeply hidden within the organizational units and they only come to light as stakeholders struggle to adapt. Be sure to dig deeper into these cases of lagging adoption to verify that they are not being caused in part by language/terminology differences.

Summary: Most Change Agents can expect their projects to run into a few vocabulary terms that either overlap or have completely different meanings within various parts of the stakeholder map. Most changes also introduce new terms and eliminate or modify existing ones.

The most effective change implementation teams deal with this challenge head-on by digging for the differences, identifying potential gaps and conflicts early and reconciling the changed vernacular rather than waiting for problems to surface as stakeholder resistance and low rates of change adoption.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. What other techniques have you seen work to draw out “buzzword overlap”?
  2. Have you ever encountered a case where it made sense to just leave competing terms as they were, rather than reconcile them?

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  • young paul newman

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

One Response to “He Said – She Said – They Said – We Said”

  1. chihos (@chihos) says:

    How to avoid "What we have here is a failure to communicate." http://t.co/uFXzDhvn #project #team #communication & #HR #leadership

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