System vs the Lifeworld
What happens when we forget the language of the people whose life we want to change?
Pic by Ron Mader on Flickr
In the book Moment of Clarity, the authors discuss the work of the German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, who developed extensive analysis to understand what happens when technical language outstrips the language of everyday life.
When technical language conquers simple language of the everyday, it is a sign that the system is gaining ground and everyday human reality, what he calls the lifeworld, is losing ground. […] Such a shift leads to a far more systematic, rule-based, and technical idea of the world. It widens the gap between who we really are and the systems that we have become.
This is a very powerful and deep idea. In the social sector, I see this on a daily basis. The not-for-profits and the government are rooted in their own jargon. In a recent project, I asked the client and their stakeholders to discuss the “wants, needs & aspirations” of their primary customer - the individual or group whose life you want to improve. The client and the entire group were experienced individuals who have worked in this space for a long time. After a lot of discussion, I saw that they were using language which the primary customer would not identify with. Then, I asked a simple question,
How would you describe this in the language of the primary customer?
That one question was enough to stop the discussion around the room. There was a lot of struggle to explain in the everyday language of the primary customer. For me, this is a clear sign that people do know enough about their primary customer. The technical language or the system language is very different from everyday reality and we can easily forget what it means to be an individual, a human being. This means it is tough to understand how a single individual experiences life? Part of my work is to help innovators understand this challenge, to help them move away from the technical language and think about the individual: the things they see, do, hear and feel. One way of doing this is through the use ethnography techniques and problem interviews to get a sense of the individual, the language they use, the way they think about their “wants, needs & aspirations”. This is the starting phase of gaining deep insight. A second but different challenge is for policymakers. Due to the nature of the system these individuals and teams are away from the on-the-ground experience where services and programs interact with the primary customer. The lack of interaction coupled with policy tools that are focussed on data, analysis, trends, large scale statistics miss the key insight needed to understand what is that an individual aspires for? As Roger Martin suggests:
The greatest weakness of the quantitative approach is that it decontextualizes human behavior, removing an event from its real-world setting and ignoring the effects of variables not included in the model.
Understanding the real world setting, the context, is the key to the insight. I knew that language use is a good way to gauge the way an individual or team in terms of how they see the world. But now I know why this is important. The insight from the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, provides the context for why this powerful and the barriers it creates for innovation.