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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Business bullshit makes me smile. As an interim you might think I need to use a lot of lingo to justify my day rate. Actually, I find it refreshing to be an outlier, to speak plainly and let the delivery speak for itself. Of course, I can turn it on. I'm educated and been around the business block but I find you get more credibility for speaking clearly, understandably and it resonates.
People of course like the smoke and mirrors, mystique of language and use it to exclude others or make them feels inferior. I find it especially so in tech or areas where you find a lot of experts but it never gets in the way of asking....what do you mean by that? I've learned a lot by asking people to explain the language of their organisation or sector and it always makes me smile.
My grand theory of jargon is this: People are insecure and need to unnecessarily complicate things. I’d like to think of business as a science. It’s not. It’s a discipline. There’s nothing wrong with that. More thoughts here:
“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.