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Words can speak as loud as any action

Action speaks louder than words, or so the saying goes. But there is a category of actions that you can only perform by speaking certain words. Such words or phrases are called ‘performative utterances’, or ‘performatives’ in short.

Think of “I promise” – there is no other way to promise than saying that you do. Or think of “I declare this meeting adjourned” – there is no other way of adjourning a meeting than by saying that you do so (and being accepted as the chairman of the meeting). We know this since time immemorial. Creation myths often contain variations on “God said ‘let there be …’ and then there was… ” Uttering words is invoking reality.

So language has this very powerful ability to add to reality, of actually calling something into existence which wasn’t there before.

The widely held belief that language mainly refers to something (that must therefore already exists), and that language can be explained by means of the logic of ‘true or false expressions’ only, is very much off the mark.

Project managers should know this of course. If you create a project plan, it is a project plan only by virtue of you declaring it to be so – otherwise it is just one of the average documents that you create on the average working day. Your authority as project manager, or the authority of the steering committee, has declared this particular document to be the project plan. It could not have had that status without being declared the project plan.

Come to think of it, your being the project manager is only so because someone has declared that you are to be the project manager – otherwise you’re just one of the average workers that go about their business on the average working day.