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Many managers describe the pursuit of important business activities as a “journey.” But the term is used too often, for too many things. It’s losing punch. It’s getting tired. It’s time to end the journey.
Where We’ve Been
Let’s reconnect with the roots of “journey.” The term originally comes from the Old French, journée, meaning a day’s travel or work. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines journey as travel from one place to another. One of the most famous journeys is that of Odysseus, who traveled from place to place on his way home to the Greek city of Ithaca after the Trojan War. If your journey is big enough or epic enough, it becomes an odyssey.
Of course, “odyssey” hasn’t caught on among managers, perhaps for good reason. After all, “odyssey” is, well, a weird word — nothing against Homer. It sounds a little odd, and not just because it starts with the sound “odd.” It also suggests something that’s really long term, carries great uncertainty and risk, and may not end well. Just look at how many people made it back to Ithaca with Odysseus. And not to pile on the cultural references, but many associate the word with a malevolent form of artificial intelligence named HAL. That doesn’t help. So let’s give credit where credit is due: Managers very reasonably use “journey” rather than “odyssey.”
Even so, “journey” has become a one-size-fits-all sort of word that gets applied to the pursuit of virtually any business goal. Not sure if “journey” is overused? These references barely touch on the many ways companies are journeying toward some corporate goal.
- SoftBank is on a journey to become “the No. 1 core company in mobile internet.”
- Caterpillar is on a journey to make autonomous mining a reality.
- Walmart is on a 10-year sustainability journey.
- Gannett is on a journey “as a forward-thinking and innovative media company,” says its president and CEO, Bob Dickey.
- Good governance? That’s a journey. “McDonald’s Board believes that good governance is a journey, not a destination.”
- Writing an annual report? That’s a journey, too. “Businesses and those who run them, investors and other stakeholders, accountants, and regulators are all on a journey to find the right assurance over the right information,” asserts The Institute of Chartered Accountants.
- Strategy? Yep, you guessed it: A journey.
- Operations? Improving processes? Companies are on journeys for that, too.
- Improving human resources? Journey.
- Innovation? Full disclosure: MIT Sloan Management Review has published at least two articles describing the innovation process in general and business model innovation specifically as a journey. It seems nothing and no one is immune.
No matter what the category of business activity, the sirens lure managers and media to label it a “journey.” (I, too, have succumbed to this siren song.)
How We Got There
So why has “journey” achieved such widespread use?
This single word, journey, affords managers a leadership trifecta: the ability to impose some kind of structure on business activities or business environments that may appear volatile, uncertain, complex or ambiguous (VUCA, for those who like acronyms); the ability to create a coherent message that rallies the troops, offers a sense of shared purpose, and denotes progress; and it enables leaders to use this language to demonstrate their own ability to deliver a direction within which others can demonstrate their own competence at contributing to shared goals.
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In a rapidly changing world, full of mixed messages and various uncertainties, it’s reasonable for leaders and managers to look for some language — a narrative — that helps people grapple with it all. “Journey” fits this particular bill in many respects. It’s a familiar and perhaps comforting framework for describing the pursuit of some end, especially when that end is indefinite.
Where To From Here?
One might respond to this discussion with, ‘“Journey’ is just a word. Get over it.” But this is not merely an issue of semantics. It’s how managers are seeing the world and their role in it. That reflects management practice, not just semantics.
The use of the term “journey” has become a management convention, an acceptable way to describe how actions and goals connect and reconnect, over and over again. It’s a form of conventional wisdom, the perils of which John Kenneth Galbraith famously explored more than half a century ago in his The Affluent Society, a small treatise on economics in the post-World War II era. Galbraith introduced his idea of conventional wisdom in the following [condensed] passage:
“The first requirement for an understanding of contemporary economic and social life is a clear view of the relation between events and the ideas which interpret them. … We adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding. This is a prime manifestation of vested interest. For a vested interest in understanding is more preciously guarded than any other treasure. It is why men react, not infrequently with something akin to religious passion, to the defence of what they have so laboriously learned. Familiarity may breed contempt in some areas of human behaviour, but in the field of social ideas it is the touchstone of acceptability. Because familiarity is such an important test of acceptability, the acceptable ideas have great stability. They are highly predictable. … I shall refer to those ideas henceforth as the conventional wisdom .”
Managers’ vested interest in “journey” reflects conventional wisdom about how to approach or narrate the pursuit of corporate goals. There is a fine line, however, between relying on conventional wisdom to achieve results and relying on hackneyed language to manage your business. The trip between the two sides of this line is short. When conventions shift, familiar and once acceptable ideas can quickly become unacceptable.
Galbraith made his point about the stability of acceptable ideas at a time when ideas had a longer shelf life. It’s worth noting that conventional wisdom without convention ceases to be wisdom. To stay on top of one’s business journey, consider ending it.