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Who Moved My Needle?

(This is a second of a two-part post.  Part I on the word “innovation” is here.)

Guest Post: Tony Proscio

In the year just past, the eminent sports writer Frank DeFord devoted part of a column to an exposé of athletic-sounding phrases that are never used by actual athletes. Instead, they seem to turn up only when some armchair quarterback is trying to sound muscular. “Now,” DeFord wrote last September, “we have a very popular new sports term that is never used in sports: ‘game changer.’ Where did that come from? Nobody who plays a game ever says the game had a game changer.” Yet find me a foundation CEO or a think-tank Archimedes who has never used the phrase, and I will make a donation to that person’s favorite cause.

People who play games would never bother with a meaningless term like “game changer,” for one simple and possibly obvious reason: Everything that happens in a game changes the game. Every stupid fumble, every dropped handoff, every time out or foul ball changes the game, even if only by a little. It may not change the direction of the game — the winner and loser may still be winning and losing — but the game is no longer quite the same. When the direction changes, as Mr. DeFord points out, “it has forever been obligatory in sport to say ‘turning point.’”

Why don’t foundation annual reports talk about turning points?

It may be unkind to speculate, but here goes: a “turning point” is a much more specific and serious claim. You can easily pretend to have “changed the game” with some little accomplishment here or there, even if it is barely noticed outside your field. Just as in sports, everything changes the game to some degree or another. But if you claim to have brought about a “turning point” in education or the environment or scientific research, then you are claiming (in the parlance of the old Superman TV series) to have changed the course of mighty rivers. You are going to be pressed for specifics, and they had better be monumental

So instead, you go for the Charles Atlas term that doesn’t require you to lift any actual weights. The same goes for “transformation” and its sibling “transformative.” Unless you believe, like some pundits of technocracy, that these words apply only to unprecedented wonders that reorganize our very existence (see Part I of this post), almost anyone can plausibly claim to have transformed almost anything, just by showing up. As Heraclitus of Ephesus pointed out almost a century before Socrates, “Everything changes and nothing remains still; you cannot step twice into the same stream.” The minute you take your toe out of the water, the stream is transformed — no thanks to you, perhaps, but then again, who’s to say?

Now, there is historical justification for treating “transformation” as a profound and radical term, something that applies only to the most thorough kind of change. The word seems to have entered English through the doorways of religion and myth, used to describe a metamorphosis that alters the very essence of something, as by miracle or magic.  (The Anglo-Norman writer Sir John Mandeville wrote in 1400 of someone’s “daughter transformed from a womman to a dragoun.”) But 600 years later, all that hocus-pocus is pretty much gone. In a 2010 report calling for improvements in the nurse-training curriculum, a prominent foundation recently had to demand not merely a transformation of nursing education, but a “radical transformation.”  The once profound word was no longer mighty enough to stand on its own, without a crutch of radicality. The foundation world is overrun with initiatives to transform schools, hospitals, art galleries, inner cities, community colleges, soccer fields, criminal justice, and the experience of aging, among many other things. If the word actually meant today what it meant to the Anglo-Normans, we would not recognize anything in our world from one day to the next. Everything would constantly be turning into dragouns.

But probably the weirdest and most vainglorious expression for changing things — a phrase equally popular in government, business, and philanthropy — is “moving the needle.” “We seek a strategy,” one foundation writes, in a reflection on forthcoming changes in its program, “that will definitively move the needle.” “To move the needle,” a product-development executive writes on his blog, “we need to create a product that champions change.” Another foundation trumpets “investments in capacity-building that move the needle for enterprising nonprofits.”

When I write about phrases like this, I do my best to come up with some kind of insight about the intended meaning, or the historical meaning, or at least some sources of knowledgeable speculation that I can consult and summarize. But on this one, no matter how hard I try, I come up stumped. What needle? on what?

Obviously several possibilities come to mind: a seismograph, maybe, or a compass, a speedometer, an audience-response clicker, certain kinds of thermometer, a blood-pressure dial, or an applause meter. All these things have needles which, if accurate, move in response to changes in the environment. Sometimes we want the needle to move only in one direction (the audience-response devices), sometimes only a certain amount (the thermometer or the blood-pressure monitor), and sometimes not at all (the seismograph). Does any of this provide a useful metaphor for anything?  I don’t see it, but even if so, every possible metaphor is markedly different from every other one. What do they have in common? Only one thing: something is changing. Big deal.

Yet if you enter any discussion of public policy, business strategy, or philanthropy, you’ll soon find yourself stretched out on a whole bed of needles, all of them in motion. It’s the phrase of choice among the movers, shakers, and needle-wigglers. Why? Beats me.

If I were to guess, I’d say that real change — fundamentally shifting how people behave, what markets reward, what judges condemn or investors support — is punishingly hard work, as rare as wommen changing into dragouns. Yet nearly all great institutions try to make these kinds of dramatic changes. Most fail, most of the time. Since human nature propels us to dwell on success rather than failure, we have adopted increasingly fanciful terms to ennoble whatever small improvements we do, somehow, manage to make. They may not be turning points, but in their little way they blow a cheering trumpet. And the game, thus changed, moves on.

Tony Proscio, a planning, evaluation, and communication consultant to foundation and large nonprofit organizations, is also the creator of The Communications Network’s Jargon Finder.


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