In conversation with Audrey Watters and Kin Lane yesterday, I managed to articulate something that’s been bothering me for a while. This is my attempt to record that so I can refer to it later.
I refer to the above diagram a lot on this blog, as it’s my way of thinking about this space. I’m not going to explain it in depth here so for those new to it, check out the slides from this seminar I did at MMU last year, or check out the chapter on ambiguities in my ebook.
Ambiguity is a relative term. For those who have shared touchstones (e.g. people who work in a given sector) terms can contain more of a connotative aspect. They get what’s going on without having it all spelled out for them. However, there are those new to a sector, and there are also those who, quite rightly, want to take ideas, processes, and terminology and use them in other sectors.
Collectively, we come up with processes to do things, or names for particular approaches, or perhaps even a term for a nebulous collection of practices. For example, ‘agile development’, or ‘human-centered design’, or ‘digital literacy’. These work for a while but then start to use their explanatory power as they move along the continuum of ambiguity. Eventually, they become ‘dead metaphors, or clichés.
In that conversation with Audrey and Kin yesterday, I described this in terms of the way that, eventually, we’re forced to rely on brand rather than processes.
Let me explain.
Take the term ‘agile development’ — which is often shortened to just ‘agile’. This is an approach to developing software which is demarcated more by a particular mindset than a set of rules about how that development should happen. It’s more about ‘agility’ than ‘agile’.
That, of course, is lost when you try and take that out of its original setting (amongst the people are using it to be creatively ambiguous). All sorts of things are said to be ‘agile’. I even heard of one person who was using ‘agile’ to mean simply ‘hotdesking’!
The problem is that people will, either purposely or naïvely, use human-invented terms in ‘incorrect’ ways. This can lead to exciting new avenues, but it also spells the eventual death of the original term as it loses all explanatory power. A dead metaphor, as Richard Rorty says, is only good as the ‘coral reef’ on which to build other terms.
It’s therefore impossible, as individuals and organisations, to rely on a particular process over the long-term. The meaning of the term you use to describe that process will be appropriated and change over time. This means that the only defensive maneuver is to rely on brand. That’s why, for example, people call in McKinsey to do their consulting for them, rather than subscribe to a particular process.
As ever, this isn’t something to bemoan, but something to notice and to take advantage of. If you come up with a name for a process or way of doing things that is successful, then you no longer have control over it. Yes, you could attempt to trademark it, but even this wouldn’t stop it from having a different meaning ‘out in the wild’.
Instead, be ready to define the essence of what is important in your approach. This can then be codified in many different ways. You’re still going to have to rely on your brand (personal/organisational) to push things forwards, but at least you can do so without trying to hang on to an initial way of framing and naming the thing.