Conversation Catalysts: Embracing Shibboleths

My previous | articles touched on the subject of cultivating a better communication culture in your organization. As part of that, I mentioned shibboleths as an agreed-upon way to fast-track certain scenarios. Given that I got a few questions about this, let’s consider some examples. Hint, you’ve probably just seen one in use recently when watching Ted Lasso!


One great use of shibboleths is to have an agreed term to ask people to cut to the chase and speak frankly. I liked how Ted Lasso normalized this with the “Oklahoma” bit. Originating from couples therapy, it is used to ask the other party to speak the honest truth and, often, to put cynicism and joking aside.

I’ve seen people who decided to adopt Oklahoma as-is and see it provide lots of value. It’s not easy and requires people to be able to put egos aside. However, this is a great first step to create such an atmosphere.

AC Prep

Here’s another story that happened organically in a startup I once worked at. In Hebrew, there’s a term for a place being “A/C ready,” meaning that the different piping and wiring were in place to make installing an air conditioner easy later. It’s the sort of thing one does when renovating or during construction when you’re not sure you’ll want that AC or don’t have the funds to install it just yet. For example, in our home that we purchased several years ago, there’s still an AC-ready point in the kitchen, though we never saw the need to install one there. Thus, it’s useless and actually takes up some space.

Similarly, in that startup, we started referring to people doing elaborate refactorings or over-engineering solutions as “prepping ACs.” Given that it was all in good spirit and that we trusted one another, this organic shibboleth came in extremely handy (I have to get some credit for the pun there. “Shibboleth” in Hebrew means oats. Get it, organic shibboleth?). I remember how we’d naturally comment during a design discussion or on a pull request that something feels like prepping the AC. We’d immediately be in sync about the argument and address that concern. Remember that the point of shibboleths is not to control discussions but help them move along faster.

Meaningful Values

I bet we’ve all had enough of company values that meant absolutely nothing. I recall once reading values on a fancy poster in some local startup’s office and thinking, “These could as well be the values of the cafe downstairs.” Values have no value (pun unintended) if they never affect your team’s work and decisions. A good set of values is one that is referred to regularly to weigh different options or contradict a suggested approach. Values have to be something other companies might view differently. Therefore, “success” isn’t a value since I’ve yet to encounter the executive team that wasn’t aiming for success.

And in companies that have thoughtful values, they often permeate the discussion culture. They become shibboleths where one can simply say, “I see the roadmap for next year but feel like it doesn’t really represent the Real Innovation is Risky principle.” When this is part of everyone’s vocabulary, it is a lot easier to do that and immediately elevate the entire conversation to a more strategic level where we allow ourselves to think in terms of moonshots and bigger risks, for example.

Don’t Be Too Nice

About five years ago, I wrote about a team I was helping that was suffering from being overly friendly. Everyone was so polite that discussions took too long for no good reason. For example, someone might start debating the merits of a specific approach, whereas there was no need to do so—it was already the agreed approach. Other times, individuals who were prone to go off on tangents would hijack conversations for many minutes, meaning meetings sometimes ended without addressing the reason they were created in the first place. When we’re too nice, we let people go on and on so we don’t offend them.

This is another area where a shibboleth can come in handy, as we did with that team. It might be easier in some cultures than others (e.g., Israelis usually have less of an issue with some chutzpah). Nevertheless, it is one of the key ways to prevent meetings from becoming even more taxing than they have to be. Consider agreeing on language that can be used to short-circuit certain discussions. For example, people can put their thumbs up to indicate an argument is moot because everyone agrees. People can be pulled by from tangents more quickly if you can just quip “coffee quota” if that’s the agreed-upon term to remind everyone we’d rather save on meeting time and be able to get more coffee time to chat.

Don’t Filter Common Sense

As a final example, let’s discuss a different type of shibboleth to unlock safety in discussions. Do you ever notice how some things that seem trivial are only addressed too late? Like someone pointing out that a particular assumption didn’t add up only after the feature was already implemented and shipped or a particular Key Result was overly complex and could’ve been cut short, but people only pointed that out at the end-of-quarter retrospective.

I realized that many teams are stuck in a misconception that many ideas or problems they notice are straightforward and trivial. They assume that it’s common sense, and therefore if there were any merit to the argument, someone else would’ve said it already. This fear of stating the obvious is how we sometimes end up doing something many saw was a mistake but didn’t speak up about it. Having a shibboleth for normalizing these sorts of questions and welcoming them is a great step. At one team I helped, we’d say, “Just making sure this isn’t a naked emperor moment.”

If you’d like to discuss your own organic shibboleths or approaches for creating more, consider joining my free community for startup executives.

BTW, you only have a couple of days left to enjoy the preorder freebies for my new book, even if you purchase a single copy. Details here.