Words and Metaphors

One undercurrent of the work I'm doing has been an iterative process of figuring out the right words to use for the various projects I'm considering.  This comes up not just in how we name projects, but also the processes and phases contained within it.

Particularly when you're working as part of a team, your choice of words matter because they connote a context.  We make assumptions regarding mental models, defaults and strategy simply based upon the words we choose when expressing an idea.

(Btw, if you haven't yet read Nicole Fenton's Words as Material, now is a good time to do so.)

The challenge is that much of my work is in the realm of "education" and "entrepreneurship", both of which are incredibly loaded words.

The Problem with 'Education'

When people think of "education", there's an implicit expectation that you have a fixed time-frame course along with some set of materials to be consumed.  Or that, the nature of the experience is instructional, where it's led by an authority figure who has taken critical information and chunked it into pieces for delivery in a linear sequence.  Or, that the business model should be some variant of tuition rather than a wholesale reconsideration of how the entire system should operate.

Unfortunately, much of the educational work I do doesn't fit this model.  It's more experiential than it is instructional.  Sometimes our programs help people unpack the day-to-day problems and challenges they're experiencing at their jobs.  Other times, our programs catalyze a brand new experience through the use of in-public challenges, such as the $1K Challenge.  Getting them to have an experience is part one, then we help them review and reflect afterwards.

Inevitably, I have to explain our approach, and how this is different than the norm. It's both a waste of time and a poor user experience because the poor framing or lack of positioning leads to user confusion.  We need to choose more precise words.

The Problem with 'Entrepreneurship'

Similarly, when people think of "entrepreneurship" alongside "education", they jump immediately to some amalgamation of Y Combinator and Shark Tank, because that is what dominates the popular mindshare today.

They unconsciously adopt the elements and structure of an accelerator—because that seems like the right thing to do—without understanding that accelerators are essentially deal flow funnels intended to help investors filter the market down to a handful of investable opportunities.

They're selection mechanisms, not a framework to train and educate everyone in the room.

(That's not to say that there aren't elements of teaching and training present in accelerators—just that we should be aware of what the system is really designed to do before blindly adopting them as templates.)

Entrepreneurship isn't a skill to be acquired, it's a medium to be understood.  You need to understand the terrain, the pitfalls, the problem space.  And, you learn it by doing, rather than doing the required reading in a syllabus.

(As a further aside, even the word "entrepreneurship" by itself is dangerous to use because it almost always assumes your goal is to build a venture-backed business, which really should not be the default.)

Exploring Metaphors

So, when you're working in a realm of such loaded words, where it's an uphill battle to reframe entrenched default mental models, you might simply be better off by borrowing an existing metaphor.

Metaphors come with associated words, concepts and phrases which might be useful.

I've been considering a few different realms of metaphors (and I'm even tempted to try to mix them, though I know it's dangerous to do so).

Here are a few I'm considering:

One of the laboratories in the Clinical Research Center, National Institutes of Health (NIH). (via)

Lab: While "lab" is already overused in the tech industry as a way to make one's company sound cooler than it is, I like it in terms of normalizing expectations that the work around launching new ideas is an iterative process of experimentation.  It sets a default that you don't know what the answer is, and thus, you have to put a stake in the ground, define an experiment, run it, and then see what happens.  It's also somewhat comforting to me because as a Molecular Biology major in college, I kicked ass in lab while getting my ass kicked in the actual classes (thanks, pre-Meds).

New York City Marathon on November 5th, 2017. (via)

2. Marathon: One of the key aspects of any experiential learning opportunity is simply the act of having an experience.  In teaching Entrepreneurial Design at a grad program, the experience needed to fit within a fixed time frame, which we were able to manage with a lot of carefully considered constraints.  However, in the real world, you'll find that the process of exploring two different, arbitrarily-scoped projects or problems is highly variable.  And so, how do you otherwise re-construct the constraints you need?  Marathons are a wonderful construct because they have a beginning, an end, as well as milestones.  There are requirements to qualify to even run, and usually those steps are clearly defined.  There's an expectation that you need to train and even be coached.  By its nature, it's a solitary journey (the running of the race) that is often coupled with a community of support.

The first launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. (via)

3. Launch: While "Launch" is already an overused word in the realm of startups, there's a specific use of the word that is relevant to our work, which is the specific act of launching a rocket into space.  It's a wonderful metaphor because it seems like you should be able to just launch the satellite or payload itself.  But in reality, you need tons of fuel and additional rockets along with an elaborate multi-stage process in order to counteract the Earth's gravity and break into orbit.  The same holds for when you're launching a new idea / product / project / company.  There's an inordinate amount of up front work that is required just to get your idea launched.

There's a richness to each of these metaphors so I'm optimistic that at least one of them will work out.

Part of the complexity is that as I've been going through multiple concurrent ideation processes, there's a possibility where it might make sense to develop multiple, separate programs rather than just one.  While they'll all likely be rooted in similar themes, they'll be targeted towards different audiences, thus necessitating different names.

So, I might actually get to use all three.