Black Hole words and how to defuse them
In 2017, Molly Graham gave a presentation that made waves. In sharing her lessons learned from scaling teams at Google, Facebook and Quip, Graham introduced a number of concepts that have now been widely-cited. Today’s post is about one Graham-ism: black hole words. Here’s Molly:
“I call them black hole words because if two people can use the same word, and mean something completely different, then it literally sucks everything out of the room. You can have an entire meeting and be like “we need to hire a CMO … blah, blah, blah” and if nobody said “what do we mean by CMO?” or “what do we mean by marketing?” then nobody agreed on anything. This inside of scaling organizations is really important. These words can obfuscate a lot of disagreement and make you feel like you agreed and then everyone starts running in different directions.”
Graham then offered examples of black hole words that she had collected: Strategy, Impact, Leadership, Manager, Marketing, Growth, Product management, Culture, Values, Hacker, Work-life balance, Performance reviews.
Not surprisingly, Molly Graham titled the section of her talk where she explained black hole word “be skeptical of words with more than one syllable.”
I have collided with black hole words for years. And I’ve suffered the consequences of not stopping and making sure our team and our partners were operating off a common understanding of a word.
Readers of This for That should be a very familiar concept of black hole words. In most tech companies - big and small - you’ll find widely varying views on the meaning of these black hole words:
partnership / partner
But to get shit done words must have shared meaning. Words must have shared meaning across teams within an organization … and across companies partnering together. There is a reason, after all, why every legal agreement begins with a definition of terms. But how do you create that shared understanding of terms when there is no legal agreement?
How do you defuse black hole words?
There are three primary ways to defuse black hole words:
Ask the speaker to define the term - take the time to ask whomever is speaking “could you clarify what you mean by an alliance?” In a large meeting this can take courage because it will be viewed by some as a distraction from the agenda. Do it anyway. Find that courage. You will benefit everyone and save enormous time and headache later. As Molly Graham says, “I spend a lot of time in meetings asking ‘what do you mean by that?’”
Establish your own definition - take the initiative. Craft your own definition and share that definition upfront in your meeting. Or add a glossary slide to your presentation to create a shared understanding of key terms in your organization or with your partner.
Remember, just because you establish your own definition and state it openly doesn’t mean you have buy-in from your partners - internally or externally. Make sure you solicit feedback. And be open to refining your definition based upon feedback.
Point to an existing definition - it is unlikely that you are the first person to confront the black hole word you’re trying to defuse. Find a credible, objective, third-party definition and use it to create a shared understanding of the word's meaning. Examples:
Michael Porter defines strategy as “deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.”
Shreyas Doshi defines product management as “defining the product & coordinating actions across the org to enable its success”
Example: General McChrystal defuses a black hole word
Former General Stanley McChrystal knows a few things about how critical language is to building partnerships. Among other things, McChrystal led special operations for the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2003 - 2008.
Checkout how General McChrystal defused the word “woke” during a recent interview with the economist Tyler Cowen:
COWEN: How much do you worry about what is sometimes called “the woke”? A sometimes extreme set of political views — do you think it turns some young people against the military or diverts their attention from the possibility of a career in the military? There have been some recent military ads that seem to be trying to appeal to the woke people. How does this picture fit together for you?
MCCHRYSTAL: I’m going to start by defining —
COWEN: You teach at Yale, just to be clear, so you come in contact with the woke, yes?
MCCHRYSTAL: I do. Let me say first that everybody defines woke differently. There’s a certain extremist level of that, where people have views that are far different than mine. But I think the idea of understanding that race and other things have been thought of in a pretty limited way in the United States for a very long time, questioning how things have been done in many of our cultural habits, is necessary. From that standpoint, if somebody wanted to say, “Is Stan McChrystal woke?” I’d have to say “Probably I am.” Taking that, I think what we need to do is tell people that the common defense of America is every American’s responsibility. It’s not the warrior class. It’s not a limited group of people with big biceps and maybe small brains — in the minds of some people — who are willing to go out and fight foreign wars. It’s got to be young people from every family that ought to reflect America. If you hold a mirror up to the face of the US military, you ought to see our nation. If you don’t see our nation, then you have a problem long term.
Notice how McChrystal defuses the word “woke” by providing with his own definition upfront. Where Tyler Cowan frames “woke” as “a sometimes extreme set of political views” McChrystal reframes the term based on his own perspective. Having established his definition and answered the question, McChrystal then uses the phrase “taking that …” to shift the conversation in a different direction and his belief that “the common defense of America is every American’s responsibility.”
You don't need to be a four-star general to defuse black hole words. It simply requires a careful ear for words that your audience may hold a different understanding of … and then taking the time to clarify so that everyone is on the same page.
Wrapping it up
Black hole words are words that individuals use without establishing a shared understanding with their audience of what the word actually means.
Listen carefully for black hole words at work (and in your life beyond work).
Look for ways to defuse black hole words:
ask the speaker to clarify words they use (e.g. “what do you mean by that?”)
offer your own definition
utilize a definition from a credible 3rd party
First Round Capital did a write-up of Molly Graham’s commandments for scaling organizations here.
Transcript of Tyler Cowen’s interview with General Stanley McChrystal from the podcast “Conversations with Tyler:”