Excellence! That’s So Twentieth Century

The words we use shape the way we think. I gotta say, the words we’re using in business today aren’t helping much when it comes to thinking about the challenges of the century we’re in.

What’s wrong with “Excellence” you might ask? Well, you can hear from Mr. Burns of the Simpsons here, or go to the dictionary which, I can’t make this stuff up, says excellence is “The quality of being outstanding or really damn good.” O.k. I made up the “really damn good” bit, but you still get the general idea. It’s a state of being.

Ummmm. Doesn’t actually sound that dynamic. In fact, it sounds pretty static, all facts known, all votes in and the winner is! Not exactly a crisp description of the world I work in. Rarely are all facts known or all votes counted in any way that persists long enough to declare a winner. The contemporary organizational climate is a bit more fluid than that. And yet, we persist in using terms like “excellence,” the linguistic equivalent of pulling out our buggy whips to make our autonomous cars go faster.

It’s probably just a case of inertia (a good 20th century concept) laced with a bit of fear and a dash of laziness. Lord knows, it’s not just excellence. We’ve poured more intellectual concrete with terms like governance, management, and benchmarking. Let it all sit around in your head or organization long enough and pretty soon that stuff starts setting up and organizational entropy ensues.

To get a feel for the problem, take our little three question true/false quiz.

  1. I’m confident that I know now what I need to know to be successful in the future.
  2. There is a broad social consensus that things will be better for our children than for us.
  3. I never have a problem keeping up with all the changes in my work, family and society.

In the previous century, we probably would have heard at least some range of answers depending on who we talked to and if any theme emerged it probably would have been generally more positive. This century almost no-one who’s paying attention would venture a triple “true” to the above set of questions.

And that spells trouble for words that depend on a relatively knowable future, a degree of organizational and cultural stability, and a pretty static state of mastery of the tasks in front of us. You know, words like Excellence, Governance and Management.

The buzzword eco-system is beginning to reflect this shift in its idiot savant kind of way with words like agile, collaborative, and innovation. However, given the velocity and diversity of the future coming at us, I don’t think we want to wait for the buzzword eco-system to miraculously turn actionable. We need to begin to understand, own and act out these 21st century words. We need to pick words that imply action not static states, that suggest relationships, not ultimate positions, and that seek diversity rather than conformity.

I’ll give one example to jump start our thinking. Earlier in my career I took a passing swipe at finding a mentor and then later at being one, but I never found that transformational charge that some speak of. It always seemed so one-way, so bounded. I’m not sure when the passing show offered up the term “pathfinder,” but from the first it seemed to better capture what I was striving for.

If we unpack the two words, reaching into a dictionary and pulling out the varied definitions, for mentor all the definitions imply some kind of unequal relationship with one person having all the value and pouring it over the other like maple syrup over a pancake. Roles and knowledge and position are all well defined and static. Looking for pathfinder requires a little more work, appropriately enough, to actually get to definitions. When one does, the definitions speak of exploration and experimentation, of finding ways that will be used by others, of uncharted spaces and mutual benefit.

Looking through this lens, it’s pretty easy to sort the dictionary into this century and the last. The table below is but a sampling of the expansion in what words are most helpful to shape our thinking for effective action on the challenges we face.

20th Century 21st Century
Hierarchy Networked
Governance Alignment
Management Leadership
Control Guideance
Power Influence
Roles Relationships

To be clear, I’m not suggesting it’s time to throw the 20th Century words on the trash heap. However, we can paint a more accurate picture of the realities we face when we use a richer palate. So, come then. Let us find our various ways together, exploring the uncharted and rapidly changing future to find our way forward.

One thought on “Excellence! That’s So Twentieth Century

  1. Niraj October 28, 2016 / 3:06 am

    Interesting article and i believe very appropriate terminologies for 21st century. Could you please elaborate more on “Pathfinder”

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