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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Just before reading this post I was trying to define the terms leadership and management for a course I'm developing. Even these most basic of terms are not well defined and people use them to mean all sorts of things.
Whenever we use terms that the person we're communicating with doesn't understand or has a different meaning to ours, we aren't communicating well. To help with this problem, it's good practice to use specific examples and agree on what important words mean.
I think these bullshit bingo words are often used by people that haven't thought deeply about the concepts and the fact that it happens so often seems to indicate that we have a lot of people not thinking very deeply.
Tough one. The problem with trying to capture deep ideas in single words, you're at risk of losing the depth of the ideas (as happens a lot with teal, agile, etc.). The ideas and meaning behind it are solid. But if we assume everyone is aware of the deep meaning, we're going down the path of turning it into meaningless jargon.
What do you think?
I once worked with a ridiculous asshat who couldn't speak a sentence without jargon or corporate claptrap.
He was entirely capable of talking about pressing the pedal to the metal after open kimono blue-sky thinking to go after low hanging fruit so that we could take the company to the next level on an exciting new journey.
Yes, he actually used to say open kimono, until I told him to shut the fuck up.
The bullshit bingo card shows the "growth mindset". Yes, it has no scientific basis. Check...
I have to second Curtis’ opinion here. Jargon happens because people like to use the short form to describe a concept.
It is a lot easier to say “self - organizing team” than to say “a group of people that are able to take most decisions regarding the creation if value with minimal / no management oversight.
These terms become obnoxious when we aren’t sensitive to the knowledge level of others in the room, or to your point when the term is used without fully knowing what the term means. Or when a sentence contains more jargon than real words, that would irritate me.
We can’t avoid jargon completely, it’s baked into how we communicate in short form, we just need to stop trying to sound so damn smart, and try to be a bit more authentic instead.
Random buzzword generators are fun and it's easy to confound the management-speak criminals by combining dubious words or expressions.
From the 1970s:
1) Turn that round (as in investigate from a different perspective)
2) Put a handle on it (characterise)
Becomes: I would like to turn that round and put a handle on it
So what you’re saying is that we should conveniently conceptualize effective growth strategies by authoritatively embracing the intersectionality of cross-functional scenarios. Of course, in a VUCA world this means we have to efficiently extend 24/365 fungibility by interactively engineering highly efficient metrics that appropriately recapitalize bricks-and-clicks intellectual capital. Does that about sum it up?
I believe there might be some use for jargon. It challenges people to think differently. I've recently joined a company that's been lagging behind in IT. The last projects were a disaster (classic app developed by engineers in a closed room without ever involving the future users). I have to say it: I clicked the "Agile" and "Design Thinking" buttons. It changed everything, they did some research on their own, came up with a different approach to solutions and have started to work together. I know I could have explained what I wanted, but challenging them to try and find new ways of working on their own is much better than me having to explain it. You know, story telling! (Oh wait!)
“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.