Innovative Capacity Building to Catalyze Transformative Change: Why Buzzwords Confuse More Than They Clarify!

buzzword cartoon                                                    By: Brittany Ashenfelter, Accountability Lab Resident

Innovation. Capacity building. Catalytic. Strategic _______ (fill in the blank).  Sustainable.

Buzzwords. They aren’t a new phenomenon, but they are becoming more and more the anchor of our conversations. Well before Leslie Kwoh’s famous article “You Call That Innovation?” we’ve known about the scale and misuse of these kinds of words. Their abuse is particularly egregious in the development sector. I have had too many conversations to count with NGO workers where after even twenty or more minutes, I was still confused as to what exactly it was that they were doing. Recently a friend in the NGO world discussed the work she is doing to promote women’s equality through strategic communication that creates impact through engagement. Understand that? She said a lot more than that one sentence, but continued to circle back to the buzzwords to describe what she was doing, and I continued to not really be sure what it is she is doing.

While the official definition of a buzzword is “a word of phrase, often an item of jargon, that is fashionable at a particular time or in a particular context”, that doesn’t really give the modern day contextual understanding of a buzzword. What’s missing in this definition is that the hallmark attribute of a buzzword is that it is ambiguous.

“We create innovative strategies to address poverty in third-world countries.”

“I’m working on a capacity building project related to fair trading practices for micro-farmers in Latin America.”

“The goal this week is to deliver strategic trainings to citizens on sanitation initiatives.”

The three above sentences (made-up, but based from actual conversations), sound interesting. They’re catchy. The issue is, is that they don’t actually say anything. There is no substance to any of the sentences. What innovative strategies? What capacity building projects? What makes the trainings strategic?

Scott Berkun, author of “The Myths of Innovation”, best summed up this issue with his comment on innovation, that it is used as a “…chameleon-like word to hide the lack of substance.” Using buzzwords to describe something leaves it open to interpretation from a third party and gives no indication of the point, the impact, of the action being taken. Buzzwords lack substance. So why do people use them?

Because as mentioned above-buzzwords sound good. When people use a buzzword, and I’ve been guilty of this, we feel like we’re concisely summarizing something. We know what we mean, so others do too, right? Not necessarily. Instead of bundling up what we’re talking about into one, clear and concise phrase, we completely obfuscate it and what we’re saying loses its value.

The issue is perspective. When you use a buzzword the person you are talking to, even if they work in a very similar area, is coming from a different perspective. Because buzzwords are ambiguous, it is up to the person hearing them to determine what they mean. This is true in any context.

The effect of using buzzwords is varied. Timewasting is one big problem- as people struggle to get to the bottom of how you’re capacity building. Misunderstanding is another- as people decide for themselves that by capacity building you mean increasing the existing output of farmers in Latin America (when in fact you mean diversifying their output).

Accountability is the new buzzword people love to throw around, but what does it mean? Like David Gruder writes critiquing the word here, “[People] tell us about how the government needs to be held accountable to its citizens, how too-big-to-fail banks need to be held accountable for the financial meltdown, how educators need to be held accountable for how their students perform on standardized tests, and so forth. All talk, no action.” And that’s truly the issue with this buzzword. People say accountability for the sake of the word, without actually taking action to be accountable.

In the same sphere there are the words integrity, transparency and open-government-all words that are often used interchangeably with accountability. The ambiguity with these buzzwords is that when one word is used, it’s difficult to tell if the user actually means ‘integrity’ or if they mean ‘transparency’. Looking at the words on their own, you would never say they are synonmyms. However, when talking about the work we do there is a tendency to use them flippantly for the way they sound, despite their true meanings, leading to confusion and masking a lack of substance.

How can you get around these buzzwords? My suggestion is to watch when you use them! Are you generalizing something? Is that the message you want to be sending? Instead of thinking it is easier and clearer to categorize something into a buzzword, break down what you really want to say. For instance:

“I’m working to diversify the number of products that small farmers in Latin America are able to sell, so that when one market takes a hit (i.e. a poor harvest one season) the farmers have alternative revenue streams.”

Does it take longer? It does, but it also very clearly states what you think and it doesn’t leave room for misinterpretation. And if you find yourself thinking about using a buzzword- pause for a moment and reflect on what it really means!

About Accountability Lab

Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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