Replacing Smart Talk With Smart Action

We’ve all been there. You’re in a meeting or conference session, and someone comes out with: “Systems change-focused innovation needs a radical intentionality with a disruptive redefinition of interventional capital.” You’re not sure what they mean, but you nod anyway.

You want to keep up, because there are funders in the room, and your project desperately needs their money. At the same time, you’re worried you might be wasting your time, approving some gobbledygook, or even worse, signing up for something you don’t really understand. This is the “smart-talk trap”: using ambiguous buzzwords without making their particular application clear.

Management scholars Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton coined the term “smart-talk trap” 20 years ago in a Harvard Business Review  articleSmart talkers, they wrote, sound confident and articulate, and they can have good ideas, but they make things sound unnecessarily complicated and often let talk stand in for action.

As in business, smart talk and unchecked jargon in the social sector often leads to inaction, inefficiency, and failed projects. What we need instead are clear, plain words that readily create a shared understanding, and lead to more-productive projects and greater impact. There are a few terms that commonly lead social innovators into the smart-talk trap:

1. Scale

Scale is smart when it builds solutions that solve a significant social problem. Take curbside recycling. In the 1980s, it was just a series of small pilot projects; almost all waste went into landfills. But there were clear pathways to reaching millions of households, and there was clear value in doing so. Today, curbside recycling is widespread in many parts of the world. It’s vastly reduced our need for raw materials, thereby preserving forests and other natural resources, and has the potential to make an even bigger difference.

But the term “scale” can mean different things to different people and in different contexts. “Scaling up,” “operating at scale,” and “economies of scale,” for example, are all different ambitions and require different approaches to achieve. “Scaling up” can mean expanding a solution to the point where it completely solves a defined problem, such as the eradication of smallpox, or takes on bigger and bigger pieces of a problem over time. When an organization reaches a size where it’s able to solve a relatively large part of a problem, people may say it “operates at scale,” despite the fact that it’s subjective. Sometimes “operating at scale” enables “economies of scale,” where enterprises achieve cost savings based on their size.

“Scaling up an organization” may be the most problematic variation. It may mean an organization becomes larger and financially more secure, but not necessarily more impactful. In some cases, both the scale of an organization and the scale of the problem grow. One example of this is Scared Straight, a program designed to deter juvenile participants from future criminal offenses. The idea was that young people get a tour of a prison, sometimes spend time locked in a cell, and then hear from long-term, adult inmates about the bad choices they made and the crimes they committed. These presentations sometimes involved intimidation, fear, and hostility, in an attempt to scare youth into living a life without crime. Sparked by a popular 1978 documentary, there was a lot of smart talk about the intervention “resetting” kids. Scared Straight programs expanded and replicated across the world. However, the smart talk about “resetting” missed one important question: Does the intervention cut crime? Nine robust studies showed that at best it didn’t work, and at worst it had a good chance of doing harm.

 

 

To read the full article and join the discussion visit Stanford Social Innovation Review: here.

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