Change for change’s sake

It’s all too easy to forget that light is a wave when you spend all day thinking about it as a particle.

Just a quick thought on  business fads and fashions.

You’ve noticed how one year’s wisdom is the next year’s folly?  Of course you have. This applies to language as well as passing management fads:  Problems became Opportunities became Challenges, and so on. A lot of the time we are right to be cynical about these attempts to change how we think, but I surprised myself on Wednesday with the idea that there is real merit in these shifts of language.

Yes, these these changes in terminology are trite: Workers and  Staff become Resources who become Colleagues who become Associates. And so on.  But to some extent this crude rather Orwellian approach to shaping our thinking is effective, for a while at least.

The real benefit doesn’t come from framing a particular concept or relationship in a specific way; I think the real benefit comes from the time when both concepts are in use.  It comes from the  act of changing the language.

I’ve been  on a Lean course this week, and this thought came to me when we were discussing adding value for the customer.

It the unsophisticated past, say the 1970s, ‘the customer’ was the person who paid over their own good money for your product or service.  It was a contradiction in terms for Public sector organisations to have  customers. The Revenue had tax-payers, Railways had passengers, Local Councils had rate-payers, Dentists had patients, and so on.  How quaint that all seems now.

In the mercantile 1980s when ‘public service’ were dirty words these relationships were reframed by asking the question:

Who is your customer?

Suddenly the public sector had customers.  And so did those people deep in the heart of corporates, like IT or HR or Facilities or Planning. If you didn’t deal with actual customers, you treated other departments as ‘internal customers’ and spread enterprise throughout the enterprise.

It worked. It shifted the nature of those relationships and changed how people thought about them.  But in the process, it made it easy for those internal departments to ignore the harsh reality of who actually pays everyone’s wages.  The baby went out with the bathwater. We were so busy thinking of light as a wave we forgot it also behaves like a particle.

So then Lean came along and said:

No, no. The customer is the punter who buys your product or service.  No matter how far back you are in the organisation, everything you do should add value to the external paying customer.

This draws everyone’s attention back to the original rather old-fashioned idea that the organisation exists for one purpose only: to sell things at a profit.


… both views have merit.  And both enable good behaviours as well as fostering bad ones.

The time when an organisation is deliberately changing its language is the time when both views are in the open and being discussed. Once the language settles, the nuances of both terms disappear. So I think there is merit in change for change’s sake, once in a while at least.

As I said, I surprised myself with that conclusion.

And because it’s Friday and this post is about manipulating corporate bullshit, here’s some fun with bullshit and jargon:

2 responses to “Change for change’s sake

  1. One of the interesting things about the last place I worked was the fact that every management grade person (which included professionals such as myself who did not necessarily manage people as such if they were performing in, say, an engineering role) was put through some training about how business worked. It was web-based and quite detailed. The idea was that every single manager in the business would be focussed NOT on internal customers, and NOT even on external customers, but on the shareholder. The “big picture”, for that company, was shareholder return on investment. This was particularly interesting to me because that company was the nearest I’ve ever come to an actual customer, given that its products sold in volume, every day, to the general public. (Most companies I’ve worked for sell obscure things to other companies.)
    The emphasis on shareholder return was all-pervading – the share price was posted on noticeboards daily.
    I don’t know whether they still have that focus, now that they’ve been taken over…

  2. How very interesting. And such a nice, family-owned, almost philanthropic reputation it had too.

    … family-owned…

    That might be it, mightn’t it? Always fascinating how different some companies are from their advertising.


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