Lexical Hypothesis and Startup Culture

Culture is often argued to be one of the most important aspects of a startup to get right.

When we were starting Kluster, I was reading The Organized Mind, which brought up the notion of the lexical hypothesis.

What is it?

Loosely, it is the idea that important things are ascribed words in language. And less important things get bundled up into an umbrella word, which encompasses multiple less important things.

More specifically:

The second postulate of the lexical hypothesis states that important distinctions in a culture are more likely to be encoded into language than less important distinctions.

In the book, it brought forward the idea that early man may have started with two words for living creatures: human and nonhuman. As humans, we find it important to know whether or not another animal is a human. However we don’t care so much whether it is an otter or a badger, so it just is nonhuman. As this process expands, the language that is left behind can be used to determine what is, and what is not, important in that culture.

It got me thinking about how labels based on function should be applied, and what could be subconsciously implied by using them.

Steve Jobs famously scrapped unimportant alphanumeric codes in product names, in favour of user-friendly names: PowerBook, iMac, etc.
Steve Jobs famously scrapped unimportant alphanumeric codes in product names, in favour of user-friendly names: PowerBook, iMac, etc.

Why does it matter?

It matters because of culture.

Culture in a startup is phenomenally important. As well as being important, it is difficult to measure.

One thing you can measure is what is (and is not) important in a startup’s culture by the language used, and applying the lexical hypothesis.

Similarly, if you are trying to create a great culture, it is worth thinking about language you will be using, and ensure it promotes a sense of worth and importance where it is needed.

Example

You listen to a podcast where two CEOs are interviewed and casually discuss their organisation’s structure. They drop in certain groups of people by role within the business, including:

Company A

backend engineers
frontend engineers
UX designers
sales guys

Company B

techies
customer success people
account executives
sales development representatives

At first you may not think anything of it.

But what is inferred subliminally is that CEO of Company A places great importance on product, and less on sales.

The CEO of Company B places more importance on the sales people than the product and engineering teams.

Outcome

How would this make you feel if you were a backend engineer in Company A, or an account executive at Company B?

Great! It would feel like you got a shout-out from your CEO and your work is recognised.

How would you feel if you were a backend engineer in Company B, or an account executive at Company A?

Pretty bad! You have just been bundled in as a “techie” or “sales person”, despite excelling in your particular niche.

Startup Advantage

Of course, aligning vocabulary across all areas of an organisation is easier in a small startup compared to a large organisation.

As such this is a quick and material internal operational advantage any startup can have over the competition if focused on.

Bringing it all together

Words matter. Thinking about what they imply, and what emotions they bring up, is important for startup culture.

I will write an applied guide to using the lexical hypothesis to improve your startup’s culture in a later post.


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