In my adult life, I’ve learned to speak two foreign languages. During my studies I came to the conclusion that it is very difficult to truly understand a culture, until you can speak its language(s). There are nuances and belief systems locked inside the words of a culture. The way a culture’s words are put together, how these words translate into actions, what its people believe and even the way they move are locked inside language. This is one of the reasons you can’t just translate phrases, or even some words directly. They need a cultural context to allow true meaning and required action to be drawn from them. It’s a process which has lots of layers, which when understood properly uncovers why different cultures believe different things, have different values, behave in unique ways and mostly go about things in a way which is, well foreign. Language and culture mirror each other.
Learning how to change, innovate and survive under a new technological regime is a lot like learning a new language.
For more than 10 years I’ve been out in the market learning and speaking our new business language, that of the accelerating technology economy. Espousing that the era of stability is over and that there is a bunch of new tools and methods which not only circumvent industrial strategies, but are part of a permanent cultural shift in business. Here’s what I’ve noticed:
There are 3 clear stages that are recognisable parts to a successful transition.
Noticing the new language – We hear a bunch of words which are different. What seem like mere sounds and accents just washing over us gradually become more familiar. We see a smaller cohort speaking this new language in more and more places until we notice that it isn’t just different, but something different is happening around and to the people who speak this language. It is generating attention from outsiders and the language seems to have some advantages. Advantages that only those who speak it seem to understand and have access to. The initial recognition of this difference is first part of any change process. We must not only admit that we don’t understand it and that it’s not going to go away. But we must also be curious enough not to ignore it, but to dig deeper into it.
Understand the meaning – Next we must try and learn the new language. We have to study it, observe and listen, then try to speak it. We must learn the meaning inside the words – the foreign ‘culture’ it represents. This part isn’t just a translation process, it’s more about experimenting with the words until it becomes a physical response. A key part of this process is watching the body language and verbal language interact. Once we really understand the language, we understand its context and what makes it work. Understanding a language just little can bring about many positive changes and new actions. But it is a game of frequency and practice. To know it, we can’t just study it. We have to use it in non-classroom environments, in real life where mistakes can happen. We must converse with others who only speak that language. If we only practice with others who speak our mother tongue as well, we won’t really learn – we’ll always revert to what is more comfortable. Actions don’t just speak louder than words – they are the purpose of them.
Living the language – This is where most struggle. At this point, we understand it well enough. We know enough to communicate and get inside the culture. But here we face a choice on whether we want to adopt it. To use it. To become at one with the language. Unless we decide to live the language, it will never be an automatic reaction and allow us to interact in its world without thinking. This is the chasm most never cross, because here’s where it goes beyond learning and becomes more about changing.
If you go back and read through the 3 steps again and think about disruptive technology or business innovation, you’ll see they are the same thing. The reasons most large companies, and people with established stable career skills struggle to adapt to innovations is because they are not prepared to live it. Mostly they want to learn a few words, be able to order a sandwich and introduce themselves, but mostly they’d prefer to just speak and act the way they always have. It’s usually window dressing. They don’t truly believe in it and they want to maintain their current culture. We’ll never truly innovate speaking an outdated language, or more precisely, living in an outmoded culture. We must immerse fully and leave the past behind.
For a company, and even a country, we’ll only ever be future-proof once we are so immersed in the language of innovation that we develop our own slang, dialect and accent with it. This is not easy. It’s a radical and permanent shift. Ask anyone who moved to a new land and had to learn to speak all over again.
Just remember this, if you don’t like change – you’re really going to hate irrelevance.
Blog readers in Melbourne – I’m inviting you as a reader to The Lessons School Forgot – Live – to celebrate the launch of my new book.
Hope to see you there, Steve.