Jargon Sucks. Ditch it.
Jargon sucks. You know it. I know it. Everybody knows it. But in business, it’s almost like there is a competition to come up with the most vague, complicated and fancy words. It's not uncommon for disrupting game changers to co-create roadmaps by leveraging low-hanging fruit to implement state-of-the-art agile prototypes. Get it?
We spend quite a lot of time reading management books, speaking at conferences and visiting workplaces around the globe. One big challenge? Cutting through the crap.
Many people feel the urge to make things complex and to use obscure jargon. I get it. They want to sound more intelligent, impress their audience, or justify their daily rates. Or - and I'm sure this is also true - it's a way to disguise insecurity and/or a lack of understanding. If you don't really know what you're talking about, it's tempting to default to jargon in the hope that people won't call you on it.
We see this commonly at conferences. People repeat what others are saying. They use buzzwords to sound intelligent, without really understanding what they're talking about. Those in the audience are scared to ask because they don't want to look dumb. The result? A self-perpetuating system of ever-increasing business bullshit.
People just repeat what others are saying. It becomes a self-perpetuating system of ever-increasing business bullshit.
Besides the fact that readers of business books, or attendees at conferences waste time on vague nonsensical business jargon also leads to severe miscommunication. I'll share a funny example.
A few years ago, we were invited to run a session at a company on 'a journey to become teal'. This wasn't a color painting exercise, but a reference to a type of organization discussed in Frederic Laloux's powerful book Reinventing Organizations. In the middle of the session we noticed that even though this company had been on their "teal journey" for some time, not everyone understood what that meant. When we asked how many people knew what the leaders of the company actually meant by this, over 95% of the room admitted they didn’t have a damn clue. Six months of "transformation" effort wasted because of crappy jargon.
The point of no return
Another downside of management jargon - or any other kind - is that it excludes people. Newcomers and outsiders feel left out because they don't 'speak the language'. It's a kind of status symbol. If you belong to certain ranks you have access to it. After a job promotion you go to business school, pay a pile of money, get an MBA and fill your dictionary with management mumbo jumbo. As of then, non-management staff are excluded from the conversation: they have no clue what that fancy management speak is all about.
Screw business jargon. If you can't explain it to a 10 year old, you're explaining it wrong.
Sure, we fall into the trap as well. The more we read and hear all that speak, the more we are seduced to repeat it. Whenever we do, please call us out. We hate it. We believe in properly studying complicated concepts and then explaining them in ways that people can really understand.
We try to keep everything we do, write, and talk about simple and understandable. Why? Because we want a wide audience to be inspired to make work more fun. To do that, we need to speak in plain language.
And you need to, too.
First of all, it's more fun to speak in a way that everybody understands. Plus, concrete sentences are perceived to be truer than abstract ones, says a study from the New York University. Also, avoiding abstract speak helps you to be perceived as trustworthy. (And from personal experience, fewer people fall asleep when you use plain language.)
More than enough reasons to ditch jargon. So, next time you go into a 'stand-up status update meeting', join a 'digital transformation conference', or embark on a "special forces mission" in your company, bring the "2020 management bullshit bingo" card with you:
Cross the word when you hear it. When you've crossed all the boxes, shout "BULLSHIT" and run away as fast as you can. You can spend your time more wisely.
Next time you join a 'digital transformation conference', bring the "2020 management bullshit bingo" card with you:
I'm curious about your examples of the most cringe-worthy business jargon. Drop them in the comments below.
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Many years ago, a company I worked for contracted an external management consultant (who appear to be so fond of such phrases) to assist a shared services with programme. She kept using the words ‘singular levels of granularity’ and it became clear even she (let alone anyone else on the programme team) didn’t know what she meant by it. These days, it is my ‘go to’ euphemism for bullshit 😉.
English is my second language so I often blame it on that when I don't understand buzzwords. But, when I joined the company I work for, I couldn't understand why they were using words like 'turnkey' and 'best of breed' to describe simple solutions. I still don't know how to use those words.
Can we also add acronyms to this list of annoying ways people like to make themselves appear important and 'in the know'. Can we all get back to just saying what something actually is and stop trying to make ourselves appear smarter and ensuring everyone just understands? Surely that's going to benefit everyone more.
Thank you Pim for this - once again - great post!
I have been eagerly following you for a long time and usually don't reply or comment, just share the reading with my team. Thanks for sharing the idea of using a "jargon bingo" which certainly will help build awareness around the time-wasting costs and misunderstandings. Once there is awareness, how to replace the jargon effectively to be better understood? My intention here is to bring even more clarity about this tricky topic of communicating without jargon.
Since this post is very close to our work with conscious communication (@GreenElephant.org), I wanted to share some insights which have been at the core of our efforts of measuring and studying new ways to help people to better understand each other. We found that there are (at least) 5 barriers for people to be understood. In the context of using jargon, there are also 5 key questions which we - as a team - regularly ask ourselves:
1. The consciousness barrier: Am I aware of my intention for using jargon? Here you suggest that with some people the intention might be to "sound intelligent" or "impress".
2. The permission barrier: Am I giving myself permission to explain Jargon? As you mentioned for some "It's a kind of status symbol". What would happen if people would all step away from their status? In certain highly gender-aware work cultures, some fear being criticised for being condescending.
3. The sensorial barrier: How might I use other senses than audition (spoken words) or vision (written words) to communicate that jargon? Connecting the jargon to a real multi-sensorial experience often removes the need for that jargon in the first place.
4. The language barrier: How might we explain the jargon with simpler words? The main focus of this blog post is an invitation to do this.
5. The tangibility barrier: How might we create a shared understanding of the jargon? Frederic Laloux's book and your blog posts are excellent examples of using storytelling, examples, diagrams and metaphors to semantically connect the abstract jargon with reality.
Looking forward to reading more from you!
I get it and probably I'm guilty as charged from time to time, though I try to mind my use of the buzzy phrases.
But I want to push back a little bit here. There is, speaking as an American, a general dumbing-down of the culture here. We graduate kids who go to college, get degrees, and still don't know the capital of Turkey, let alone where Central America is in relation to them. And these people can and sometimes do look down at anyone who aims to be a little more intelligent, global-minded, up on the latest trends in management and innovation and tech and whatever else.
I go into companies where my teams try to bring really good stuff (like Teal, or Agile, or Innovation, or design thinking and the rest) into the org. And trust me we know what we're talking about and we don't fall back on jargon. The reactions from some folks, even if not spoken aloud, are a basic "F-you and your smart-ness".
I'm just saying we have to be careful here to distinguish between posers who hide behind jargon (I tend to see management and leadership often doing that) and people who really want to get under the terms, get their hands dirty and do real change work, like a damn Rebel.
My point really is, we cannot escape some of these terms, we have to be better at translating them. I just worked with a nonprofit higher-ed type client and some of the silicon valley concepts of 'scale' felt off-putting to them. We quickly talked about 'scaling their impact' which they immediately felt great about. Now they use the word 'scale' and know what it means. Are they using jargon? I don't think so.
I appreciate your energy Pim and love what the Rebels do, but let's be careful not to stereotype what's happening out there. Some of us are stuck with the buzz words, but we do a good job of translating and interpreting them. Agile can be jargon. But when implemented, agile approaches, yield real amazing returns on multiple levels. And so on.
Great article and powerful collection of buzzwords! Thank you Pim!
I would add just, apart of using buzzwords without clear idea what’s that and sometimes not bothering to explain to those who might be not aware, there is another interesting abuse of popular definitions: substituting the original meaning with something else convenient.
An example from my practice: managers speaking about “agility” but in fact meaning that by extra effort people manage to Contribute to rigid process and goals regardless the environment and the boss himself make it difficult.
“It was like being with a parent that didn’t really want us”, says CEO of GE Appliances, Kevin Nolan. He explained: “The one hope everyone had was that Haier bought us because they wanted us, and we were curious to find out what that would mean”. 4 years later, we visited to find out how GEA was doing. Getting to talk to them was harder than we thought: “Our managers and executives are currently working on the assembly lines.” They are doing what!?
There are many examples of self-management on the Corporate Rebels Bucket List, all of which have very few layers of management, if any, and they are mostly highly successful. So this raises the question “If this is such a good way of organising work, why isn’t everyone doing it?”.
After writing up the business case of NER Group for our Online Academy, I read Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham's classic about their transformation of SRC Holdings, called 'The Great Game of Business'. I was struck by the similarities between the two.