Thursday, July 25, 2013

Using code words for quick response

You might be thinking that code words are solely the stuff of spy movies, where a guy in a trench coat walks out onto a bridge on a drizzly night, meets up with another guy in a trench coat and mutters, "Brazil nut."  The second trench coated man replies, "Pecan Sandies" or other incongruous odd phrase before they pass by one another and the second guy is shot dead by a sniper, never to talk about tropical and subtropical nuts again.

Code words have application far beyond the likes of James Bond or Mata Hari.

Certain professions use them to talk about another person without either the object of the conversation or other people knowing it, like when Secret Service referred to President Ronald Reagan as "Rawhide".  The selection of the code word is sometimes fundamental to stealthy operations, but is sometimes assigned ironically and completely for fun.  You can use them in personal safety applications, as one family did in case a different-than-usual relative would need to pick up their preschooler after school.  If the person knew the password "Elmo," the child and his teacher could be assured that they were officially allowed to take the child along with them.

Complex instructions in a verbal shorthand
Code words can summarize a set of complex or confidential information and a series of instructions.  In First Aid, ABCDE reminds a caregiver of the sequence of checks to make on a patient when evaluating the situation - airway, breathing, circulation, disability, expose/examine.  Acronyms can become an incomprehensible alphabet soup, so if you want to use them to simplify communication rather than to obscure it, you have to train people to understand and use your shorthand and reinforce it regularly.

Here's an example of personal application for verbal shorthand: young family was living in a neighborhood that wasn't completely safe.  They agreed that it wasn't necessarily a good idea to say out loud to their kids, "Hey, there's a suspicious looking guy that appears like he is selling drugs is right down the street, we'd better get away, and fast!  Run up onto our porch!"  Instead they agreed to say "Tinkerbell home!" and trained their children to make a beeline into their house at the sound of the phrase.  If not at home they could say "Tinkerbell car!" or "Tinkerbell Grammy's!"  The mention of good old Tink was the key for the kids to sit up and pay attention, that this was absolutely serious, and then the shorthand action instructions followed.

Creating and reinforcing culture
Culture is created by sharing values and operating principles, and it is reinforced by an insider vocabulary.  Thomas Watson, former president of IBM, used the catchword "THINK" to motivate employees.  The word "THINK" was filed as a trademark fourteen years before the name of IBM was, and it still appears on walls, scratchpads, on a line of IBM equipment (THINKpad, etc.)  And in 2008 IBM Mid America Employees Federal Credit Union changed its name to Think Mutual Bank.  THINK became more than a word - it became an entire identity for one of the most prominent computer companies in the world.

Unless you work in a marketing or wordsmith role on a daily basis you might not be fully aware of the impact of word choice you might make.  Believe it or not, the Super Bowl was named by accident, during a conversation about what you might call the big season-ending championship game.  The name originated from a merging of a reference to college bowl games, and the "super" from the kids' toy "Super Ball".  It was intended as a working concept, but was later picked up by the press - and here we have it years later with the tricky Roman numerals attached to make it a powerful cultural icon.  If you'd like to read more on the naming of the Super Bowl, you might enjoy this.

If you use a code word that you wouldn't mind sharing, or can cook one up that can help your employees perform their tasks more consistently, comment here or on our Facebook page.  We'd love to hear from you.

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