What’s the Buzz (Word)?

By Marci Mayer Eisen, MSW, ACC

When I started in the Jewish community in the 1980s, the buzz words and key concepts that guided the work of “building community” included “soliciting feedback,” “nurturing identity,” and creating meaningful “group process.”

Language creates our world and words influence our reality. So many people want to discover the next great concept, highlight a new framework, write up a clever top 10 list and, especially these days, design a chart (preferably with different colors and arrows).

Each cohort wants to improve upon the past. It is human nature to want to believe that we, as individuals, make a difference in our work and leave our own unique mark to influence others along the way.

Currently, with social media, we can express an opinion on Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, Instagram, and Twitter (even in the middle of the night when we can’t sleep). We believe, or at least hope, that other people care about our opinions. The truth is, except for a small percentage of influential leaders, our comments and photos are only seen by a few and have little lasting impression. However, it’s human nature to feel motivated to seek validation that our ideas matter. Perhaps, some of us are smart or clever enough to create new concepts that create lasting contributions. Unfortunately, most of us, including myself as I write this, are aware that our influence is quite limited.

Reflect with me by decades (this is not an exact social science) about the words and concepts that have emerged to guide our field.

In the 1990s, we obsessed with “strategies” and the use of “vision – goals – objectives.” I attended too many to count “strategic planning” sessions that used the framework of “SWOT” (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats), and we were encouraged to “think outside the box.” “Inquiry” and “backward planning” emerged, and with opportunities presented by a new world of technology, we sent out an abundance of “surveys” to replace previous focus groups. And we had to go from “good to great” to make sure that our staff was on the “right seat on the bus.”

In the 2000s, there was a noticeable switch, and even considerable pressure, to use business terms. Lay leaders we respected and wanted to please asked us to identify the “ROI, return on investments” in our nonprofits. Goals were no longer enough, they had to be “measurable,” set up in “logic models” with the use of “metrics.” “Assessments” had to be both “qualitative” and “quantitative,” while we looked at both “macro” and “micro” issues. Marketing was no longer sharing an idea or recruiting participation, we had to make sure our organizations and programs were “branded.” Group dynamics gave way to “teamwork,” many committees became short-term “task forces,” partnerships were replaced by “collaborations,” and conscious use of self or self-awareness was switched to “emotional intelligence.” We were definitely told to no longer use the term “process,” that it sounded stuck in the past, and of course, everything we planned had to be presented as “innovative.”

Also, in the 2000s, with a priority to incorporate business terms, execs became CEOs, assistant directors became VPs and the board president became chairman of the board. Nonprofit management programs replaced some social work and Jewish communal institutions. I even walked into a meeting where a senior manager said to me, “Make sure you let them know we’re ‘building capacity’ and demonstrating ‘best practices’.” We weren’t just doing strategic planning; we had to demonstrate that we were “thinking strategically” and “being strategic” toward a “collective vision.”

Over the past decade, the 2010s, we’re replacing research with “data mining,” and planning has to be “forward-thinking” and incorporate “design thinking.” We’re no longer piloting, but rather we’re “prototyping” and “ideating.” Innovation is no longer seen as powerful enough, rather we need to be “disruptive.” Our senior managers need to demonstrate “transparency” and incorporate “coaching” into their “management styles.” Initiatives must convey “relevancy” and we’re focused on “co-creating” instead of collaborating and our efforts are not just inspiring, but also “aspirational” with an approach that is “audacious.” Ironically, while we’re increasingly encouraged to “take risks,” (a term that’s been around for a while) we also have to be experts at predicting “impact,” even before we get started.

Even in the last few weeks, I’ve heard presentations about including the principles of being “intentional,” “leaning in,” and “adding value.”

If we don’t use the language of the time we can be judged as not current or even not smart. Matt Homann, Founder and CEO of Filament, a creative conference and meeting space in St. Louis, where they lead sessions on dynamic meetings and effective decision-making, shares that: “There is no power in vagueness. Take the ‘grandmom test’ – would your grandmother understand what you’re saying?” He goes on to inform that “Fancy language might draw us in, but doesn’t necessarily serve us once we’re engaged.”

So we “stay present” in order to be seen as “relevant,” while recognizing that concepts and frameworks are fleeting. What we see as “cutting edge” today, might be passé in just a few years. Just as the pendulum is bound to shift, we are once again speaking about meaningful “processes” to build community. While the phrases might change, the values of community remain as our foundation. What’s next? Only time will tell.

Marci Mayer Eisen is Director of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ Millstone Institute and staff for JProStl.