Making Culture Tangible: Using Language to Shape Your Culture

This is the first in a series of posts about methods for making culture, which is inherently intangible, more tangible.

In their lively book Creative Confidence, Tom Kelley and David Kelley write about how organizations can use language to verbalize cultural goals and norms. 

"What we say-- and how we say it--can deeply affect a company's culture. Anyone who has battled racism or sexism knows words matter. To change attitudes and behaviors, it helps to first change the vernacular."

The Kelleys give several examples of people and organizations who change culture through language. "Jim Wiltens, an outdoorsman, author, adventure traveler, and speaker who also teaches a program of his own design for gifted and talented children in Northern California schools. In his programs, Jim emphasizes the power of positive vocabulary. And Jim leads by example. You will be literally never hear Jim say, "I can't." He avoids saying those dreaded words by using more constructive versions that emphasize the possible, such as "I could if I..." He actually promises to pay his young students hundred dollars if they ever catch him saying, "I can't."

In a very different field, they write about "When Cathie Black took over as president of Hearst Magazines, she noticed that negative speech patterns had created an environment hostile to new ideas... So Black told her senior team that every time they said, "we've tried that already" or "that will never work," she would fine them ten dollars."

 "How Might We" Questions

"How Might We" Questions

Many people in the design field have heard of the phrase "How Might We...," since IDEO uses the phrase to start their brainstorming sessions. However, it was actually Salesforce that coined the term. The Kelleys write, "One version of the alternative to the negative speech patterns is the phrase, "How Might We...," introduced to us several years ago by Charles Warren, now salesforce.com's senior vice president of product design. "How Might We..." is an optimistic way of seeking out new possibilities in the world. In a matter of weeks, the phrase went viral at IDEO and has stuck ever since."