One of my teams is facing a big fat decision regarding future product direction and the process has split the team in half the “Yes We Shoulds” and the “No Way in Hells”. The manager of the team is facing a minor rebellion and spending much of his time trying to drive the team towards the “right” decision.
A few days ago, I walked by his office and he was talking with one of the “No Way in Hells”, trying to influence them onto the other side of the fence. I overheard a blurb of his conversation, “I think it’s a key decision and I’m asking you to think outside of the box…”
Walking back to my office, I thought about my negative reaction to the term “outside of the box”. What does that actually mean? Well, it means something like “don’t restrict your thinking”, but when my boss says it to me, I hear, “I’M A MANAGER and YOU SHOULD THINK CREATIVELY.” No, that’s not right… what I hear is, “I’VE STOPPED THINKING and I AM USING THROW AWAY PHRASES THAT OBSCURE WHAT I MEAN”
As I sat in my office, a project manager came in for a 1:1. With the observation fresh in mind, I attempted to monitor all my usage of managementese during our half-hour meeting. Here are my offenses:
“Can you CIRCLE BACK with her…”
“I want to DOUBLE CLICK on that and…”
“These are the ACTION ITEMS…”
What I learned: I’ve turned into a total dorkwad manager and can no longer communicate like a normal human being.
One of my favorite books on software construction is Steve McConnell’s Code Complete. In the second chapter, McConnell describes the richness of language around computer science:
“Computer Science has some of the most colorful language of any field. In what other field can you walk into a sterile room, carefully controlled at 68 degrees fahrenheit and find viruses, Trojan horses, worms, bugs, bombs, crashes, flames, twisted sex changers, and fatal errors.”
“A software metaphor is more like a searchlight than a road map. It doesn’t tell you where to find the answer, it tells you how to look for it.”
With this advice in hand, I’d always assumed that management metaphors fell into the same bucket. They don’t.
Managementese is the language that is learned, evolved, and spoken by managers. For communication between managers, it’s a convenient, high bandwidth means of conveying information. Chances are when you say “double click” to a fellow manager, they understand you are suggesting that they should carefully check the work/task/whatever.
When you say “double click” to an employee, they know what you’re talking about, but they also know that you’ve just self-identified as a manager by flaunting some mumbo-jumbo in front of them. Why didn’t you just say what you actually meant? Are you sure they actually understood what you meant? Management metaphors obscure meaning and confuse those who aren’t lucky enough to be managers.
There are unique spheres of language which exist at each part of the corporate organization chart. Inside the sphere is the language which is unique to the job. Engineers have one, marketing has another, and sales has yet another. In each of these groups, there are managers who must speak their native language as well as be able to translate between spheres in order to get the job done.
Managers are hubs of communication, the better they communicate across these sphere boundaries, the more people they can communicate with, the more data they have, which, consequently leads to better decision making. Ultimately, stronger communicators make more informed decisions and, hopefully, are more successful because they waste less time wondering what to do.
Out of context use of language leads to one thing — confusion. Rather than conveying the information they wanted and getting to the task at hand, a manager who bumbles their communication is going to end up doing it again a week later. Even worse, maybe the painfully confused team isn’t going to say anything about their total lack of direction and the manager is going to be in real damage control mode weeks later.
In high tech, we’re all in an incredible hurry. We’re working against an unreasonable deadline, we’re overcommitted on features, and, now that times are tight, no one is paying for pizza on weekends. As a manager, your job is that of a bullshit umbrella. You need to decide what crap your team needs to deal with and what crap can be ignored. That means you need to rapidly acquire information from a variety of people… In that rush, managementese can help you talk with your fellow managers to figure out what the hell is going on, but you’re only half done. You still need to communicate with your team.
This can be tiresome because you, of all people, are absolutely sure what you’re saying. This is why you might be tempted to use the readily accessible management metaphor laced language which you’re familiar with. Don’t. Think back to when you were the junior grade programmer and that first layoff came around… and you were wondering, what’s a layoff? Am I being fired? If so, when? And why?
95% of the people in a big company simply have no clue what corporate machinations are going down and how they might affect whether or not they’ll be working in the next six months. How you will be judged as a manager by your team is based on how you communicate with them. That’s not just taking the time to have that QUARTERLY ALL-HANDS, it’s understanding what they need to hear and being able to say it in a way they’ll understand.