How Your Words Limit Your Ability to Think

Colby Oliverson Blog, Executive Director Articles, Uncategorized

“Words are not in the power of men. Men are in the power of words”  – Herman Barr

Words are powerful. They can transform organizations and ourselves. I learned this firsthand from my mentor, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. He shared a few simple words with me (and likely countless others) that changed how I approach blindness. He said that with the right training, support, and opportunity, blindness could be reduced to a level of inconvenience. These few words held the power to change blindness from a personal tragedy to something I could accept and even come to view as just one of my many personal characteristics.

Just as Dr. Jernigan’s words held power, so do the words we use in the workplace. Those acquainted with fields like literature and diplomacy naturally understand the power of words and use them as carefully as surgeons use their instruments—their power can’t be underestimated. Words shape how we experience, understand, and define the world around us. Used well, words can become a powerful lens for helping people to see things differently, find new strength, and uncover hidden insights. In contrast, the absence of the right words, or use of the wrong words, will blind people from the distinctions and insights necessary to achieve breakthrough results.

We must be deliberate about the words we introduce and use within our organizations because they transmit insight, understanding, and meaning. Regrettably, government circles tend to lack the full continuum of vocabulary needed to get the types of breakthrough results our citizens, employees, and taxpayers deserve.

Words Transmit Insight

Words convey understanding and provide insight. For example, Hawaiians use many different words to describe waves. There are distinct words to describe an ocean wave, a breaking wave, a  receding wave, a high wave, waves that rise and fall without breaking, surfing waves, waves that break diagonally, and more.

The Hawaiian language allows for the distinctions and nuances that other cultures may not readily see. Someone who speaks Hawaiian will see and understand the nuances in the waves and will have a deeper understanding of the ocean as compared to someone who has a more limited vocabulary for describing a wave. The Hawaiian words capture the insights and lessons learned over generations from a group of people who live on and near water.

Another example—think of the color blue. What pops up in your mind? Now think of the color navy or turquoise. Words literally help us view the world around us. They help us understand nuances, distinctions, and important facts. They transmit understanding from one person to another and reveal truths that are difficult to visualize any other way.

To reinforce this point, take a look at this picture. What do you see?

Now, what do you see after reading the words rabbit and duck? By simply sharing the words describing the illustration, you were likely able to quickly identify a shape that you may not have noticed at first.

Words provide powerful insights and a lack of words can constrain us. Imagine not having the word gravity in our vocabulary. This simple word transmits a fundamental understanding of how the natural world works. Without the word gravity, we could grossly misinterpret everyday occurrences.

Words Are the Key to Getting Breakthrough Results

Our ability to accurately understand both the problems and solutions we face at work is highly contingent on the breadth and scope of our vocabulary. It is difficult to understand something we can’t describe and we can’t easily describe something if we don’t have the right words.

The old adage, “if you only have a hammer, then you see everything as a nail” is true for the words we use. If our improvement vocabulary is limited, we will be limited in how we solve problems. Giving our teams the right vocabulary is like giving them a tool box filled with all the tools they need for whatever problem comes their way.

Unfortunately, government work settings often lack the right words for the job. For example, in 2017, my office (the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget) conducted a survey across all of the state’s nearly 22,000 employees. We wanted to baseline and ascertain if our workforce understood or had exposure to operational terms like full kit or work in process. The results were not surprising. For example, 70 percent of those who responded said they did not know what the term full kit meant. Full kit is a powerful concept and tool we use to help improve quality and get work done faster. We shouldn’t expect our employees to solve a problem (lack of full kit) when they haven’t even been exposed to the words that explain a potential problem. This is just one example of many that surfaced from the survey.

State employees are not to be blamed for their lack of understanding. Operational terms are, unfortunately, neglected in the government lexicon. Instead, our government dictionary is filled with terms around policy analysis, program evaluation, statistical modeling, etc. While these concepts are critical, those words don’t relay the right messages for tackling the entrenched and stubborn problems of government. With that in mind, my office is working even more diligently to share specific terms with our state workforce on a regular basis through direct emails and various social media efforts–all in an effort to expose our employees to a new vocabulary.

A Scan of Government Programs and the Words Used

I wanted to know if this propensity to overlook the fundamental words or terms of good management extended to the higher education programs that train individuals going into public service. After reviewing the program offerings of 15 Master of Public Policy (MPP) or Master of Public Administration (MPA) programs at various universities, a clear pattern emerged. The core curriculum for each program emphasized economics, statistics and data analysis, policy analysis, program evaluation, organizational analysis, and public budgeting and finance. While all of these areas of study are important, there was a stark absence of words describing operational improvement. Of the 15 programs evaluated, only one mentioned flow, operations, and processes.

While not exhaustive, I do believe the review reveals a pattern that is likely common across the majority of MPP/MPA programs. The heavy emphasis on policy and statistical analysis and the lack of attention paid to the vocabulary of running operations or learning how to clearly define the core problem is concerning.

No wonder those of us in government jump to more data, new policies, more legislation, or more program evaluation as the answer to the problems we face. “If you only have a hammer …”

The Vocabulary of Improvement

The common vocabulary used in government environments and training programs simply isn’t sufficient. While it is important to focus on policy analysis and data tools, we are missing the mark by ignoring how to manage operations in such a way to get significantly better outcomes at less cost.

Getting breakthrough results in government begins by understanding how to get better, faster, and cheaper outcomes with existing resources.  Learning how to effectively and efficiently run operations is foundational. Ignoring the vocabulary of operations is like creating a blueprint for a home and ignoring the need to hire a general contractor to construct it.

Concepts such as triage, full kit, work in process, and mistake proofing should be well understood and common within government environments  (follow this link to learn more about these concepts). Understanding how to find root causes should be taught and embraced across every government training program. Touch time versus elapsed time should take the place of average time, and we should all understand concepts around front loading and case movement rather than more traditional terms around case management, case loads, and program evaluation.

Once the managing operations vocabulary is well entrenched, we can begin to transition to words that help us think with more clarity. Words can crystalize our ability to reason, find root causes, and uncover new insights. An entire vocabulary exists to help people think, to find real innovative solutions, and to define core problems. Terms such as vicious cycles, conflict clouds, SUCCESS criteria, and change matrix clouds are not well known in government. These and other terms have the power to help people see solutions they could never see before; but, it all begins with using and understanding the right words.

The process of finding true breakthrough results isn’t haphazard. Consider the common vocabulary used to reference elements of healthcare markets and underlying government programs or policies such as Medicaid, Medicare, or the Affordable Care Act. Terms such as managed care, value-based care, fee-for-service, third-party-payment, advanced premium tax credits, and risk sharing are frequently mentioned in the healthcare policy discourse. It is easy to assess whether or not these words are helpful in addressing the problem and uncovering breakthrough solutions by evaluating the results currently being achieved. Despite decades of emergent and/or modified government healthcare policies and programs, U.S. national health expenditures reached nearly $3.5 trillion in 2017 (roughly 18% of GDP that year), with spending from government programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) registering over $1.3 trillion.

The terminology we use will establish the boundaries for our thinking and problem-solving.  What if we introduced terms like planned discharged dates, flow, leverage point, or front-loading into the Medicaid discussion? While these words and concepts are not the silver bullet, they would introduce new thinking into age-old discussions.


Our words limit our ability to think. Without using new words to describe the problems we face, along with potential solutions, we will continue to get the same results. Some may argue that this is an example of a chicken and egg discussion. Do words create insight or does insight create the words? I believe both concepts are true; however, when we have found the right words based on hard-won insight, they should be spread across our work environments like cotton in the wind. When we gain new vocabulary and new insights for creating breakthrough results, they should be plowed back into our organizations.

We should never take lightly the potential impact of the words we use or don’t use. If government is not achieving breakthrough results, we are likely using the wrong words.