May 23, 2024

what’s in a name?

small plants growing out of a sideway
photo caption: a rare aerial view of pecopteris arborescens, also known as a giant marattialean tree fern. the fine network of giant ferns juts out of thick sheets of limestone slate. each slab is nearly 100 feet tall. a fallen leaf from an ancient now-petrified tree rests nearby. it, too, is hundreds of feet tall. there are humans in this photo, you can’t even see them because they’re so small. this is definitely not a picture of a sidewalk.

What’s in a name? Somehow I’m the first writer to ask that question. Think about it: if we called a rose something else, would that name change how it smells? Try it.

It didn’t, right? I am positive that a rose would, with a different name, still smell nice. Original ideas happening here. I should trademark this somehow. I’ll use a more original example of what I mean.

Think about how many industries offer mentorship programs to new staff members. What image does “mentorship” conjure in your head? In my mind, at least, I picture an avuncular, possibly-creepy old white man leaning back in his chair. In a slow tone of voice he speaks to everyone and no one with confidence and the wisdom of his years. A younger person is scribbling with fury in a notepad, writing down his every word. Apologies to my actual mentor, who is a fantastic person I like a lot.

Say that nowadays, the concept of a “mentor” doesn’t sit right with some people. It implies a power dynamic like the image I described above. What if, instead of a “mentorship program,” we called it a “partnership program?”

Like my original idea, we could call a rose an orchid (famous for having no smell). But that name change doesn’t alter either flower’s odor. In the same way, when we want to solve a problem, we have to go deeper than its skin (or petals). Naming the program something different doesn’t automatically make it different. How would we go about creating a new program, rather than rebranding an old one?

start with what you have

You have to start somewhere, it’s true. So what is it? What’s the problem with it? Why make a change at all? Think about the reason for reinventing the concept we already have.

I mentioned the potential power imbalance woven into mentorships. They imply that a mentor has everything to teach and nothing to learn. The mentee, in turn, has everything to learn and nothing to teach. But that’s not true in most situations. Every person is a blend of their background, education, experiences, and more. The company or industry may value specific things they want to spread to newcomers. That doesn’t mean a mentor and mentee relationship benefits from being one-sided.

use a lens that’s aware of the problem

Most of the time you have to really understand a problem before you can solve it. When updating an older program, it helps to know where to look. Who can see the value in doing things a different way? Start with people whom the existing system harms or devalues. How do they perceive the issue? How could this program or approach operate in unequal, discriminatory, or unjust ways?

If we agree that the concept of “mentorship” carries a negative power dynamic, what does that mean? The company or industry we’re in may have assigned value to the information that some people hold. Those values don’t need to be intentional. Say someone is designing a mentorship program. Say their design stops at, “new employees should meet with old employees.” The old employees, not knowing why they’re mentors, bring their own ideas to the program. New employees in that environment may imagine a deeper reason to pairing them with the long-timers.

If we’re reimagining that program ask, “what did we value historically to create it like this? What do we value now?” Mentorship programs may want to teach people “the ropes.” Often those ropes are norms of white-dominant cultural values. Values of professionalism, or when and how to show emotion at work, may not be as important anymore. Do we want newcomers to absorb those views from mentors, too?

imagine alternatives

Think about alternate designs that address the problems or unwanted dynamics you’ve found. Traditional mentorships might value norms at the expense of stifling innovation. Nowadays most industries value innovation and perspectives from lots of different people. We recognize that mentees have something valuable to share, too.

Instead of mentorship, say we value a workplace cultural exchange. We could match up people used to “the ways things are” with people imagining “the way things could be.” If we position both people as equals, we’d have to show (and really mean) it from start to finish.

Mentors might have taken their mentees out to lunch. Or in my earlier example, the mentee would visit the mentor’s office while they talk ad nauseam. How can we disrupt that dynamic? We could create a program that matches people based on their interests or desired areas of growth. We could pair people up on a project or a visioning session. We could sponsor lunch for participants, or convene their first meeting in a neutral location. We’d put lots of focus on the expertise that both people bring to their relationship. From the start, this helps equalize them in relation to the values the company or industry wants to hold. If the desired values are counter to the ones the industry currently holds, say that. Every step of the way, clearly explain how your program is different.

the name comes last

Name your program based on what you’ve created. When you say the name, what do you want it to evoke in people? Did the mentorship program keep the power dynamics you wanted to avoid? Call it a lunch and learn. Keep the name if that’s what it does. If you don’t know how your new program is different from the old one, it doesn’t need a new name.

Say you started this whole thing because you had an excellent idea for what to call it. Use that name as a vision. Share the name with others, then let them tell you what they imagine. If they imagine something different from what you had in mind, your work isn’t over. Craft a program that fits the name, or vice versa.

When we share ideas with each other, the names we give to things do matter. Change can be powerful and profound, or it can be the same old harm in a new package. It doesn’t matter whether we call it a rose, people will decide for themselves if it’s shit.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]