How does the choice of your words impact on your actions?

“This is the biggest change in the history of the division, to ensure that the business is scalable,” said the coachee describing his vision for a restructuring. This restructuring was being communicated internally as an ‘evolution’, but the actions of the coachee didn’t match the importance of this task as there was no project plan to turn the vision into reality.

The restructuring was clearly a courageous goal, a fundamental change, to be implemented within two months. A tight and ambitious timescale, especially given the need to transition at the same time as maintaining business as usual, so no balls dropped in the meantime.

When discussing the restructuring the coachee described various tasks as “happening in a couple of weeks”. This phrase “a couple of weeks” was used three times in a short period in our coaching conversation. The flexibility of a couple of weeks sounded unusual given the enormity of the task and the very short timescale. Curious about this I asked how confident the coachee was that the change would happen by the agreed deadline. To this he replied “Oh it will happen”, I asked how will you ensure that this happens, and the coachee said, “it usually does, that’s how we work. Things get done more often than they don’t”. Alarm bells were now ringing in my ears, this is a massive restructuring, crucial for the future of the business and there is a real risk that it might not happen. For such a business critical change, risks are typically managed, controlled and reduced through a detailed project plan. I then asked about the restructuring plan, at this point the coachee smiled, a clear indication that there was nothing in place.

The coachee then corrected my use of language and described the way the change process had been communicated. Staff had been informed about the change at an all-hands meeting and it had been described as an “evolution”. The coachee explained that the leadership team had taken time to consider how to describe the transition, and the word “evolution” was chosen instead of “restructuring”. There was concern about the negative connotations of the word “restructuring”, as some people might think this could mean redundancies and this could cause unrest at this crucial time. As a result “evolution” was believed to be the positive way to describe the transition.

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I found the choice of the word ‘evolution’ as opposed to ‘restructuring’ particularly interesting. The meaning behind the two words are very different, and the absence of the project plan would mean that there was no alternative other than evolution. Evolution by definition means the gradual development of something, derived from the Latin word for unrolling. This is in contrast with the definition of ‘restructure’ that is to change, alter or restore the structure. Structure being to construct or arrange according to a plan or to give organisation to something.

Although the word ‘restructuring’ may have negative associations, it does in fact suggest that there is some structure in place; some plan, something tangible to work towards. Whereas ‘evolution’ is free forming, allowing things to unroll and just letting things happen. Was the description of this as an evolution influencing the management of this transition, or did the lack of a project plan represent poor or unskilled leadership?

When talking about priorities, the coachee stated that for him the transition was number one on his task list. However he had concerns that the board focuses on short-term profitability and so there was a more powerful organisational priority, that of profit. This message was so powerful that the impact permeated through every level of the business. Anything that jeopardised short-term profitability was a threat, and in this case the mixed message around the real priority of the ‘transition/restructure/evolution’ was having a significant impact on the implementation of this change. The focus on profit is important; clearly the sustainability of a business is dependent on this. However, messages can be over emphasised and cause the focus of attention to be too strong. A single driver such as short-term profit can lead to myopia, a loss of perspective, and the lack of ability to see the bigger picture and the long-term importance.

In this situation the assumption had either consciously or subconsciously influenced the coachee. It was clear that the absence of a project plan was the symptom of the coachee’s lack of belief in the viability of the transition. He believed that with the potential impact on profitability, the board would focus their attention on the short-term and the transition would be scrapped or deemed too difficult for now.

With this breakthrough, the conversation eased into project planning, stakeholder engagement, and scenario and contingency planning.

Up to this point I felt that I was being very directive, the coaching felt more like a battle of persuasion. I could have more easily backed off and respected the ‘evolution’ of this change and confirm my confidence in the coachee that the transition will happen. But as I could see the potential for a train crash, holding back would have been a disservice.

The words we use are far more than descriptions, titles or labels. Words can encourage or discourage action. Digging deep to really understand the meaning is important, and then challenge how this impacts on actions.

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