“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Remember that? Chances are one of your parents taught it to you to help you deal with someone who wasn’t being nice to you. The problem is, though, that it’s wrong.
Words are powerful. And they can hurt, particularly in the business world. They reflect attitudes, behaviors, biases, and simply old ways of thinking that can be harmful to your company’s strategy and mission. They reflect structures of thought and approaches to issues.
So, in the spirit of respecting the power of words and spurring a healthy discussion, let me lay out four words/phrases that I think really need to change in the business world, and why:
“Celebrate failure.” The idea behind this is a great one. To be innovative, people need to take risks. And some risks won’t work out. But if people are afraid to fail, then innovation doesn’t happen. The problem is that nobody wants to fail, as my colleague Betsy Holden recently said in “The Future of Marketing.” But scientists and entrepreneurs realize that failing is an essential precondition for learning. Finding out that something doesn’t work can be a valuable piece of knowledge. As Thomas Edison replied when asked if he was frustrated by the fact that his light bulb experiments hadn’t worked 10,000 times, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” That’s the spirit of “experimentation” that is core for innovation. We should all learn to “celebrate experiments.”
“Change”. Today’s business world is, indeed, going through a period of fundamental change. Digital and data have upended business models and heralded an unprecedented period of disruption. But “change” when applied to how businesses need to adapt – as in “change programs” – connote a simple, one-off effort like walking into a closet and changing your shirt. Or changing a light bulb. Change is not an event but a process, and the best companies are the ones that can adapt continually to disruptions and new opportunities. Business leaders should speak in terms of “evolution” programs. Evolution is about a process over time, and a series of improvements that are tested in the environment.
“Users”. In the digital world, people will often refer to visitors as “users.” Never mind the unfortunate connotation of “drug users”, the term “users” is de-humanizing and it creates a dangerous mentality that highlights that mechanics of connecting with people rather than the emotional aspect. What you really mean are “customers” or “guests.” In fact, there are plenty of terms that can work if they really do help to humanize the person or people you want to connect with. For this reason, it’s so important when developing marketing strategies to create personas based on real people so you can constantly remind yourself that you’re ultimately dealing with humans, not abstract quantities.
“Funnel”. I’ve written about this one often before, but it’s worth repeating. The marketing “funnel” is just the wrong way to think about the process that customers go through as they make a purchase. The funnel describes a path where a customer is constantly narrowing his/her choices. However, that’s just not true today. We like to refer to “journeys” and particularly the “customer decision journey.” This approach reflects a much more iterative and complex pathway that customers take both before and after they make a purchase. This framework allows for the reality that customer choices in fact often increase during the journey, so it’s not at all reductive.
Now, how words are used in corporations can easily become jargon or take on silly “thought police” overtones, which clearly can be destructive to the original meaning of a word. But for all that, we need to recognize the power of words. How we use them and which words we choose can say a lot about how we think.