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 article. Smart 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. Here 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 taking 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.

2. Sustainability

Sustainability is smart if it means a change for the better can endure. Take the nonprofit Street Business School, which provides business training to low-income women across Africa to lift them out of poverty. It aims to deliver a lasting solution and is rapidly replicating across the continent. A diagnostic test and social replication toolkit from Spring Impact helped the nonprofit identify that its biggest challenge to sustaining social impact was maintaining financial sustainability for the many small, community-based organizations that wanted to deliver its program. The organization focused on driving down program costs and then developing a franchise model that shared the costs of implementation with local organizations.

There are, however, different types of sustainability, and each bears a range of possible meanings:

  • Ecologically sustainable: Does that mean carbon neutral or something more nuanced?
  • Socially sustainable: Does that mean an institution that is inclusive or one that works with existing power structures, or both?
  • Financially sustainable: Beyond “build it, and they will come,” do we know who or what will routinely pay for it?

All of these can be smart. Each is quite different. And pursuing one might conflict with the others, so it’s important to be clear about what interpretation you are using from the outset.

Given that only 1 percent of international development projects even evaluate their impact when they finish, it’s hard to know the extent to which smart talk is getting in the way of sustaining impact. But in our own work, we’ve seen many ideas—such as the integrated rural development project Millennium Development Villages—grow but then fail to sustain the same level of impact beyond the initial grant period.

3. Innovation

Innovation is smart if it generates better solutions to problems. Innovation can mean coming up with breakthrough solutions that make a difference. It can also mean incrementally making something more effective.

Sentebale, a charity Jon has advised that works with grassroots organizations to help vulnerable kids in South Africa, carefully tried and assessed a variety of program iterations until it developed its breakthrough model of psycho-social support for HIV-positive children in Lesotho. Once it showed the model worked, it replicated it in Botswana, continuing to test and incrementally improve it in this new context. Applying the right kind of innovation at the right time allowed Sentebale to develop a new, effective program, and from there, adapt and use it more widely to create greater impact.

But smart talk about innovation can also trap us into taking the wrong course of action. Funders love innovation, so there’s often a perverse incentive for social innovators to try to come up with a new breakthrough solution, instead of making incremental improvements to an existing program that’s already showing promise. Or to try new things (that might not work) and forget old things (that we know work). Or to repackage solutions to gain funding. It can be hard to secure funding to develop something that works when funders are looking for the next new thing.

Consider the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans (AAMA). The organization followed the smart talk around the value of the “new” and received funding from a variety of sources to “innovate.” The effect was a sprawl of programs that distracted AAMA from the heart of its mission. It was only when it began ignoring the smart talk and refocusing on educating Mexican-American youth that it accelerated its impact on local communities.

4. Collaboration

Collaboration is smart if it powers change. Organizations that share a common cause often have different ways of working and different views of the problem, but as long as everyone is clear about what they mean—as long as they don’t fall into the smart-talk trap—discussion can translate to action.

In the early 20th century, polio paralyzed hundreds and thousands of children a year. Now polio is 99 percent eradicated, and the goal of complete eradication is in sight thanks to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a public-private partnership led by national governments with the World Health Organization; Rotary International; the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the United Nations Children’s Fund; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Partners share the goal of complete eradication and work together to achieve something that would be impossible to do alone. Atul Gawande, a physician who has worked on and written extensively about polio, told us: “On the polio eradication model, we all have a clear, shared goal. Everybody knows what we are doing, and who is responsible for what.” The collaborative has been instrumental in reducing the number of children paralyzed by wild poliovirus from 350,000 in 1988 to just 22 cases in 2017.

But collaboration isn’t always worth the effort or expense, and it’s not an end in itself. One well-known, bilateral donor, for example, forced grantees working with networks of medical clinics across Africa to collaborate through a substantial joint grant. Smart talk about collaborative efforts paired with “synergy” jargon took precedence over resolving hard, practical conflicts like where to invest resources. The grantees never resolved those conflicts and, at the end of the project, both the partnership and the sustained impact it aimed to achieve failed to reach their potential.

5. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

These are three smart ideas, and some of the smart talk about them raises good questions. Which dimensions of diversity matter most? What do we mean by equity vs. equality? How do we know when people really feel included or safe to express themselves?

It can be easy to fall into the trap of just talking about these concepts, instead of taking clear action—but at the end of the day, action is what matters. When Michelle Zych became executive director of the Women’s Fund of Omaha in 2012, 20 out of 24 board members were white. “We wanted to reflect [that] racial equity and representation are critical for our work to improve the lives of women and girls of all identities,” she said. “Intentionally recruiting women of color was a strategy that fit with our mission, vision, and values on the board. We went about it very methodically. We avoided the super-shitty dichotomy of skills versus diversity. We wanted and got both. Of the 12 voting members of the board, over half are now women of color.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t happening enough. The 2017 report from Board Source, for example, shows that nonprofit boards are not as diverse as the US population, are not getting more diverse, and are not likely to become more diverse if they maintain current recruiting practices. In short, we fear that much of the smart talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion reflects “virtue signaling” rather than “virtuous change.” And it could be even worse than that; it could be that the smart-talk trap is set on purpose as a way to maintain the status quo. A checklist of programs such as “unconscious bias training” can give the false impression of action while nothing changes at the top.

6. Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a smart way to create a vision of the future and understand how to get there. But the fact that reasonable people can debate what it really means makes it ripe for smart talk. Srik Gopal, Donata Secondo, and Robin Kane provide one of the best definitions: “the discipline that helps us understand interdependent structures of dynamic systems.” And in her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Donella Meadow explains systems thinking this way: “A system is a set of things from people to cities to molecules that are interconnected in such a way that they produce their own behaviors over time. Systems thinking seeks to identify and analyze those behaviors in order to change or influence them to solve a problem.”

But we need to remember that talking about complexity isn’t the same as tackling it. Moving from smart talk to smart action, even in the face of complex systems, needs to be the goal. The work of Stephen Lloyd, a renowned social entrepreneur in the United Kingdom, is a good example of acting on systems thinking. Lloyd noticed that insurance companies were charging nonprofits the same premiums as small businesses, despite their lower risk. So, with in partnership with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, he founded CaSE Insurance, which disaggregated nonprofits from businesses and could thus offer less-costly premiums. Soon, the whole insurance market responded and adjusted the premiums for nonprofits nationally. Lloyd understood the insurance system, pulled the right lever to change it, and saved nonprofits millions of pounds. Once the system changed, and all insurers offered lower premiums to nonprofits, CaSE closed.

Going back to the quote at the top of this article: “Systems change-focused innovation needs a radical intentionality with a disruptive redefinition of interventional capital.” If our grandmothers asked us what that meant, we might say, “To change the world, we need to put the cash somewhere else.” Boiled down this way, the statement frankly isn’t that useful or illuminating. It’s also possible the person who used that smart talk meant something else. Experience has taught us that when we see or hear words like scale, innovation, or systems thinking, it’s smart to stop and get clear on what they mean. Organizations like Social Innovation Exchange and Social Impact Exchange are seeking to reduce smart talk, and ultimately change systems by bringing leaders together to reach shared understandings and act decisively. We hope that more and more organizations will begin to do the same. Whether it’s facing the fear of looking not smart and just asking, or breaking down jargon into shorter, plainer words, the time we invest in making our communication meaningful will pay dividends later in impact.

Jon Huggett (@jonhuggett) was the first chair of the Social Innovation Exchange, which has members across Asia, the Americas, Europe, and Australia. He has also chaired the boards of Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration, STOP AIDS Project in San Francisco, Khulisa in the United Kingdom, and the global campaign All Out. Huggett also serves on the board of One Million Mentors and advises businesses and social enterprises around the world.

Dan Berelowitz (@danberelowitz) founded Spring Impact based on his experiences working across a range of social sector organizations and his frustration at seeing them not scale up. He believes that great ideas must flourish and that the key to making this happen is developing people, sound strategy, and practical implementation. Berelowitz is a young global leader at the World Economic Forum, a Clore Social Leadership Fellow, and an Arianne de Rothschild Fellow at the Cambridge Judge Business School.

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