Have you ever turned someone into a frog?
Of all the magic words in all the stories through history and time, Abracadabra, or later, Abrahadabra, is probably the most recognisable. It was the Word Of Double Power that represented the union of the microcosm with the macrocosm and roughly translated into the rather wonderful phrase “I will create as I speak”. It is a cultural icon with a noble etymology and yet wiki notes that the word is now ‘applied contemptuously to a conception or hypothesis which purports to be a simple solution of apparently insoluble phenomena’.
Which explains why the world of business wizards and gurus have had to find new words to use instead.
They’re easy to spot – the polysyllabic verbs that are uttered with a certainty and assurance that confers upon them the solidity of tangible, concrete nouns. As if merely by uttering them in the right tone and in the right context we can turn an action or a process into a real live philosophers’ stone that will transmute all the base metals of everyday business into solid gold. Dumbledore would be impressed. In theory, thundering these magic words through the press and annual reports and down the channels of internal communication is all we need to do to unleash a tsunami of employee commitment, enthral the marketplace and send the share price stratospheric. In reality, they just become jargon.
And if we haven’t found the right word yet, it’s not for want of trying. We’ve experimented with Management, Leadership, Communication, Relationship, Partnership, Change, Creativity, Innovation and lately, Engagement, to name but a handful. Sometimes we sprinkle in a few Power Adjectives like Radical, Disruptive or Excellence to sex them up a bit but in the end it’s primarily posturing. Kind of like shouting louder so the foreigner can understand us better instead of finding way to communicate effectively.
Going on about building an Innovative Culture doesn’t replace actually doing it: being prepared to add flex and risk and chaos and failure to the list of accepted – even embraced – practices. Prattling about Leadership is useless unless you build a culture where autonomy, creativity and responsibility are rewarded. And preening about Engagement policies is irrelevant while conformity and control are the order of the day, no matter how many team building activities and CEO Vlogs there are. In business, actions really do speak louder than words. Even magic ones.
Of course, we may crack the magic formula yet. We may even give Midas a run for his misery and money. In the meantime, the irony is that by investing these words with purported magical abilities, we abuse their true magic and strip them of any meaning at all. We nominalise them in every sense of the word. But winning the lottery still seems to be easier and more seductive than working for a living, so…