It’s no secret that companies sometimes do crazy things. Shows like The Office and the comic strip Dilbert have become cult classics because they reflect corporate dysfunction with horrifying and hilarious accuracy.
The practice of renaming things is one of the more mysterious organizational moves. Something isn’t working, so leadership decides to fix the situation by calling it something else. Casualties frequently include job titles, which may evolve from something straightforward like “account manager” to the colorful “customer success engineer” in a matter of months—often without any operational adjustments to support the change.
Positioned at the nexus of strategy and execution, organizational development professionals often have a front-row seat to these bizarre customs, as well as keen insight into the underlying issues.
New Names, New Thinking
Sometimes new language stimulates new thinking. When the current terminology triggers habits and behaviors that no longer work, renaming can be a smart move. Specifically, the shift in vocabulary should support positive change by reminding team members to apply an improved approach.
Consider the word “governance.” In the not-for-profit world, governance describes the dual responsibilities of trustees or directors to achieve an organization’s social mission while ensuring its viability. In some corporations, by contrast, governance describes a vertical or hierarchical approach to management, in which decisions are handed down without question or collaboration. This latter example describes a situation in which renaming can help drive positive change. Stakeholders may choose to replace “governance” with “steering,” for instance, to reflect a more horizontal or cross-functional approach. Changing an organization’s lexicon in this manner helps to create a binding commitment to the new behavior, giving team members a fresh start with updated language. In this case, the practice of renaming supports the implementation of a solution to an existing problem.
New Names, Old Problems
More frequently, however, shifts in organizations’ terminology fail to deliver the desired transformation. Why? These moves are often superficial, made without investing the necessary resources in exploring, and resolving, the underlying issues. Consequently, the same problems keep occurring; only the labels have changed. It’s the lexical equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
As one example, many organizations have problems implementing projects, those initiatives that support innovation and transformation. Instead of examining the reasons behind missed deadlines and project backlogs, management might rename “projects” as “initiatives” or “plans” or “special tasks.” Organizations change the words they use to describe something, but they don’t change the associated work approach. This tactic accomplishes two things: it covers up the symptoms, while freeing people from altering their behavior—at least for a little while. But eventually, the pain exceeds the tolerance threshold, and the cycle continues until leadership finally addresses the root cause of the trouble.
While the practice of renaming problems instead of resolving them may sound crazy, we’ve seen it countless times over the past two decades. In fact, some organizations make the situation even worse by banning troublesome words altogether, like “plan” and “risk.” The leaders involved are often intelligent, competent professionals; they simply don’t realize that better solutions are available.
The first step toward meaningful change requires recognizing this verbal shuffling for what it is: a stopgap measure that fails to correct a broken process.
Identify Ground Zero
OD professionals have a unique opportunity to educate leadership about core issues. They understand the larger business strategy and support implementation through recruitment and personnel development.
One effective method for bringing challenges to light uses experiential learning through working sessions. A facilitator guides stakeholders through the problematic process, such as project management, using a real-world scenario. In the project-management example, team members start the working session by following usual procedures. The controlled environment simulates the pain created by the broken process, allowing leaders to watch the problem unfold. The facilitator then helps the group troubleshoot the issue. Together, participants conduct a root cause analysis, in which they identify the different factors that contribute to the problems at hand. They dig deeper and deeper to arrive at the fundamental flaw, from which the other issues arise.
For instance, project management often suffers from the base assumption that authority is required to get things done. Working from this core belief, all solutions will have an authority factor. Unfortunately, such systems don’t support the cross-functional nature of projects, which require collaboration and flexibility. Attempting to manage organizational initiatives through a hierarchy that prioritizes individual groups over team performance does not work.
As Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Fixing broken systems requires acknowledgment of their deficiency and objective analysis of the underlying causes.
Provide New Tools and Techniques
Once root causes have been identified, OD professionals again play a key role in the solution. Training programs can help organizations overcome the primary problems. In addition to educating employees and helping them develop specific skills, training can also transform thinking and move people through a paradigm shift. For example, if authority-based thinking is paralyzing project management, specialized training can help leaders learn how to manage teams without authority. The program starts by reframing participants’ approach to leadership and emphasizing collaborative decision-making, demonstrating why traditional hierarchies and reporting relationships fail to support the flexibility and adaptability required to succeed in today’s complex world.
Then, training can provide tools and techniques that support the new paradigm. Like carpenters and mechanics, organizations need the right tools for the job at hand. Six Sigma, for instance, works beautifully for helping organizations analyze and improve business processes, but the methodology isn’t designed for project management. Training in collaborative project management provides new skills to support new thinking. Beyond helping team members learn to communicate more effectively, such a program can provide a structured process for fostering collaboration, analysis and consensus.
Engage in Hands-On Application
As every OD professional knows, training only goes so far toward changing a person’s behavior, especially when attempting to override deeply ingrained habits. Where possible, combine skill-based training with hands-on working sessions that allow employees to use their new tools and techniques in real-world situations. Applying training concepts to an actual business situation allows people to engage with the course content in a meaningful way, helping them to learn and absorb it. Seeing the benefits of training firsthand encourages employees to continue practicing their new skills, an important step toward sustained change.
Coaching can also reinforce training and improve the long-term impact. After completing a program, employees speak with a coach and ask questions about how training concepts apply to their work. These follow-up conversations provide an additional level of accountability and incentive for people to practice what they’ve learned.
Shakespeare wasn’t an OD professional, but he was definitely on to something with his immortal lines from Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet.” Conversely, most organizational renaming fails to fix broken business practices.
But today’s OD professionals have the opportunity to facilitate meaningful organizational change. While they have long had the perspective to help address such challenges, these leaders now work more closely than ever with—if not part of—the C-suite. A strong voice and innovative training resources are all it takes to stop the madness of renaming.