Tech Life We don't trust fashionable words

The Words You Wear

In business, words are like fashion. You try a word on because important people around you are saying it and getting results, but you may not actually know what it means.

Every group in the company has their own unique set of words and every group uses these words to verbally define who they are, what they know, and what they own. These words, these phrases, have value when everyone is in agreement as to what they mean, but used outside of your part of the organization, their value decreases, especially the closer you get to engineering.

The engineering burden is that when it comes to the product, we know how it works. Everyone else outside of engineering has vastly less working knowledge of the product; they don’t need that depth for their job. The engineers know the intricate details of the system, the people who built it, and what it is capable of.

This is why, when fashionable words show up in our day, we grind our teeth. We’re cynical because we don’t trust fashionable words. They sound important, but over the years we’ve found they obfuscate our product’s capabilities, they portray our development process as trivial, and they create productivity destroying expectations elsewhere in the building.

I’m guilty of using these words. I’ve written about them before, but they still stand out in my day. They hang in the air sounding like buzzing rather than communication.

This is not what you think you’re saying, but this is what we’re hearing:

  • Actionable — A label applied to an idea or plan to make it sound achievable.
  • Alignment — “I’ve yet to convince people that I am correct.”
  • Best Practices — A phrase used to convince you to do something different that assumes you don’t actually want to know why it’s a better approach.
  • Business Critical — “You are fired if this fails.” (See also: Mission Critical.)
  • Capacity — How MBAs measure your productivity. I’m not kidding.
  • Cross-functional — A hyphenated word everyone starts using when they decide to not fail alone.
  • Executive Summary — A brief assessment given to executives. If this summary were shown to those who actually do the work, they would giggle.
  • Future Proofing — Architecting a product so that it accounts for things that don’t yet exist and can’t be predicted.
  • Key Takeaways — The three bullets of information you actually needed in that two-hour meeting.
  • Heads-up — “You’re screwed.”
  • Initiative — A new process designed by someone who doesn’t understand the old process.
  • Lock-in — Designing a product to be both indispensable to your customer while also screwing them.
  • Milestones — Magically created dates that mean nothing, but give executives the impression that progress is being made.
  • Mission Critical — “We are out of business if this fails.” (See also: Business Critical.)
  • Offline — A tactic to delay a decision until they can say no in private. “Let’s take this offline.”
  • Organic — An adjective used to attempt to avoid actual planning. “We’re using an organic process.”
  • Paradigm — A model you need in your head to explain something very complex to someone else.
  • Social Media — Two words used to kill newspapers.
  • Sanity Check — The meeting just before the meeting when you explain that things are going badly.
  • Silver Bullet — The last ditch strategy to beat up another company who is currently kicking the shit out of you.
  • Socialization — The process by which an idea that no one wants to do is forced on others.
  • Solution — “I don’t know what your product does.”
  • Stretch Goal — Engineering speak for “if it makes you feel better that we might get this done, that’s cool, but there is no way this is happening.”
  • Taking One for the Team — Announcing that you’re doing something exceptional after you’ve fucked up.
  • Thought Leadership — The act of talking rather than doing.

Cutting edge fashion looks freakish to me. When I see a model walking down the runway wearing a black and white geometric monstrosity, I wonder, “How does anyone make money doing this?” These aren’t the designs that end up in your local department stores. They’ve traveled through many different designers who have watered them down and made them palatable versions of the cutting edge.

New ideas, like fashion, have to start somewhere. When Jordan in Marketing lays down an energetic thirty minutes of incomprehensible marketing buzz-speak, I take a deep breath and attempt to hear his enthusiasm rather than his seemingly meaningless words. I remind myself of the time I walked to his office and threw down twenty minutes of arcane engineering reality and he gave me the benefit of the doubt. He clarified and we found a comfortable place to communicate.

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68 Responses

  1. how about “manageable”, which means I don’t want any additional work.

  2. Leo G. 15 years ago

    Nope not good. Even the ‘codes’ that I use/cut through in corporate America are not what you’re saying.

    I love how people rage against the machine while having so much corporate experience. It’s like you’re biting the hand that fed you; or at least renouncing you were fed by them.

    You’ve fallen back on the ‘corporate glossary’ list – which so many thousands of people have done before you [better.] You’re So fast to try and maintain this “anti-establishment” image; while your book should read “managing corporate IT departments and teams.”

    Working in corporate America got you your money, your book, and your leadership role. Why put down the system that got there?

    Second, I could pontificate about making the hundreds of things that I’ve done in the past and the myriad of small, cliche lessons I’ve learned to show how insightful I am. But the truth is I’m only as good as my next project.

    You’ve worn [out] your historic fame.

    I read your stuff – but I think this article is a tired, worn out, cheap [inaccurate] desperate attempt for some foothold in everyone’s RSS.

  3. Leo: The expression is you jumped the shark.

    Me I laughed out loud and that’s good enough for me.

  4. I liked it. I use all those words. I also, aparently, so my team keeps telling me, overuse “going forward,” to mean “It’s crap now, but I know the way out of this.”

    For some reason they still doubted…

    I liked the insight of listening to Jordan, “Hear his enthusiasm.” That’s good. Let’s get out of analytical mode for an extended period of time. I like it.

  5. Nicely done. I’ve had to deal with a few of those myself, though I always thought “actionable” meant you could sue somebody.

    Oh, and you left “architecting” off the list.

  6. Michael C 15 years ago

    Some interesting tidbits here, but most of this been stated elsewhere before. New terms for old problems don’t solve the problems. Rather, they cloud the issue. Leo G – please check the dictionary on the correct usage for myriad. I’d like to see more people’s feet held to the fire on topics such as these. The PC and business speak mentality has bred a good deal of laziness and contempt.

  7. Frank deBrune 15 years ago

    Leo sounds like an obedient drudge who needs to justify his years in a corporate beehive. I can sympathize.

  8. When I hear someone state a new feature will be “a value-add”, it makes my skin crawl.

    Value-add: an under-specified feature which will consume weeks of my life and in the end will only be used by 1% of the customer base. (See also, “I would use your product if you had feature X”)

  9. Wendy 15 years ago

    Another I would add to the list is

    Reach(ing) out: used where one used to say “get in touch” – to me it evokes thoughts of an act of desperation or charity … or an old phone commercial… sorry …

  10. sandrift 15 years ago

    How about “action item”, as in, “Whenever I go to a meeting, I try to make sure all of the action items get assigned to someone else.”

  11. Brilliant, made me chuckle 🙂

    How about “circle back” – two executives need to go and have the same conversation again now that one of them has spoken to engineering and thinks they know what the hell it’s about.

  12. “Commitment” — An agreement between a salesperson and a customer that your company will implement a particular feature and deliver it by a certain date. For some reason, this frequently happens without any consultation with the developers who actually have to do the work, and the developers may not even find out about it until a couple of weeks before it’s due to be delivered. By the time the shit hits the fan, the salesperson has pocketed their commission and gone on to create a new problem for someone else.

  13. I can see where Leo’s coming from. It’s not accurate to say the words “don’t mean what you think they mean” if everyone you use them with *is* using the same definition. However, yeah, it’s hyperbole and it’s meant to be funny, so I think a critical response would be better accepted if it were also funny. That said, it’s probably good for everyone to know both definitions :P.

  14. @Sue, according to my fiancé that also happens frequently in manufacturing.

  15. Thanks for taking one for the team to give us a heads-up that we should take the initiative to read this executive summary offline which is a silver bullet expressed through social media to get some key take aways and sanity check our paradigm against the best practices for using these mission critical words to increase our capacity and future proof us all as cross functional thought leaders.

    Note: “Thanks for taking one for the team” is a painful combination of taking one for the team and a heads-up.

  16. I have a slightly different take on all the buzz-phrases. I look at them as more of a metaphor for design patterns. It allows everyone to have a mutual understanding of the concept in only a few words.

    Some are still frivolous for example “Silver Bullet” (cause there never is one). But others are good. I like actionable. It can be a focusing word when discussing features with the business. If you follow it up with – “What are you going to do with the blah feature to improve the business?” Think about the gathering of data, it has to be actionable or all it becomes is noise.

    So, it’s fine to hate on these phrases, but they are a means to communicate shared ideas just like design patterns.

  17. Gordon J Milne 15 years ago

    So, when are you going to give us a bingo card we can print out and take into meetings to play “buzzword bingo”?


  18. Mark McDonald 15 years ago

    Michael C,

    Leo’s use of myriad is perfectly acceptable. I suggest you actually read a dictionary before making such claims.

  19. “i’m a ‘change agent'” usually means you were recently, or are about to be, fired…

  20. Wow. Just look at what you’ve done. You’ve pissed off Leo. Evidently, this is a hot-button issue with him.

    I have to say that while many professions traffic in their own jargon, it’s the business jargon that is potentially the most irritating. The out-of-boxing, the tipping points, the bullet points.

    Maybe the issue isn’t where that world got you. Maybe the issue is the lack of real meaning to those words. Maybe one day, we can just drop the bullshit and really contribute in an honest way to the world.


  21. I dunno if this is by design or “organic process” but there are precisely 25 words on the list.

    Exactly enough for a Meeting Buzzword Bingo Card.

  22. David 15 years ago

    There has never been a working, successful cross-functional team. Every person on such a team leaves the weekly pointless meeting thinking “Man, those other guys are such dicks” and plotting how to derail the other guys next week. Meanwhile, nothing else happens.

    Cross-DYsfunctional, oh hell yes.

  23. Thorzdad 15 years ago

    “Deliverable” – Used to simultaneously belittle the thing you’re working on, while reinforcing the idea that you answer to whomever just called your project a “deliverable.”

  24. Awesome X 15 years ago

    You may be out of luck with “stretch goal”, it was an answer on my HR quiz today.

  25. “Milestones — Magically created dates that mean nothing, but give executives the impression that progress is being made”

    Absolutely spot on. They’re based on bullshit, include bullshit and inevitably cause suffering to people who actually have to do the work.

  26. Putting out fires — Performing expected menial tasks in succession while overstating their importance.

  27. Tanya 15 years ago

    “Push back” As in the [name] department is giving us push back on our proposed strategy. In other words, they’re being a pain in the ass and refusing to agree to whatever it is we want.

  28. “moving forward” which means: we are stalling until you are so hopelessly in over head that you cannot possibly escape.

  29. Thank you for the glimpse of corporate life, I feel better about my blue collar job now.

  30. “Push-back” is actually my department telling your department that what you’re pontificating is usurping our skill-specific decision-making, with the presumed authority of MBAs who co-opt our more-easily-adopted jargon as your own — all without appreciation for either definitions or actual hourly metrics.

    Too many hypens.

  31. graham 15 years ago

    Using these words should be (tacitly) banned, in the same way you can’t name your child “Adolph.”

  32. Kenneth Miller 15 years ago

    What about “timeboxing”? “Resources” — referring to people? “Bandwidth”?

  33. SAN IDEOS 15 years ago

    After a successful corporate career its time to give up the toys that one has been toting for so long. That’s re-inventing oneself or should we call it “Innovation”? That one surely is in fashion!

  34. I am amused at how many of those phrases come from the military.

    Not surprised, mind you, but amused.

    Actionable, Mission Critical, Offline (which is a phrase of dual-use. It has a specific meaning in the Army, and that meaning is similar, though different, to the meaning in the modern world), all jump out at me.

    We have some other uses/meanings for some of those other phrases.

  35. David Harmon 15 years ago

    Remarkably accurate, but a few of those actually have real meanings, despite bing misused.

    Notably, “actionable” is *supposed* to mean “we can get working on that now”. And a “sanity check” (outside computing) is when you figure out whether the plan is full of shit, or something that’s actually doable. (Within computing, it has a more specialized use.)

    Similarly, “socialization” and “alignment” are real processes — among other things, they’re how groupthink gets established and enforced.

  36. The only one I disagree with is “actionable”. It means a single doable item, as opposed to a vaguely defined goal. It comes from GTD lingo, like Merlin Mann’s old groove.

    Example: “We need to frobnicate the frotz.”

    “Eh, have an actionable first item on that?”

    “Go to the post office. Buy stamps. Pick up a postage table while you’re there.”

    “Can do!”

  37. Earl Cooley III 15 years ago

    I’ve always thought of “moving forward” as meaning “you’re all being laid off so that our stock will jump a quarter-point and our beloved executives can buy second summer homes with cash”. In other words, stomping on employees on the path to rationalizing bad behavior as being good for the sacred bottom line.

  38. PeterOgle 15 years ago

    My last corporate gig was in a bank and when sitting in endless (read pointless) meetings about work, involving up to 15 people who talked and only one who would eventually do the work. To pass the time I’d sit and play a game counting these was great fun.

  39. Natalia 15 years ago

    Very accurate description of what is going on in actual life in our corporation.

  40. Strategic – an adjective used to enhance any of the above

  41. Feeling a little BOFHy?

  42. @Tim I’m with you. In teaching, I can still have real conversations with other teachers and the students. We are getting bits of management around the edges now though.

  43. Cervantes 15 years ago

    My favorite buzzword: “Liase.”

  44. One who speaks this language 15 years ago

    I am a Manager who drops these words frequently in meetings. “Circle back” also means, “uhm.. I don’t want to talk to you right now, in fact I don’t like talking to you period, but I’ll give you facetime for a few minutes, then jet off to my next meeting where I can use more fancy words”

    Help me now.

  45. Ed F. 15 years ago

    Rightsizing Resources = we are laying you minions off en masse

    The newest to me:

    Catch & Release Staffing-we rightsize resources and then hire seasonal or temporary staff (at a reduced cost) to get over a production hump.

    This latter phrase really fries me as it denigrates a venerable practice to improve fishing.

    In addition to lacking clear meaning or obfuscating true meaning, many of these managerial buzzwords act as psychic condoms to prevent managers from actually coming into intellectual or emotional contact with the consequences of management actions. The real pity is that good managers fall into this jargon because it is so prevalent in their daily milieu.

  46. Michael Tuminello 15 years ago

    Unacceptable = I don’t like that idea.

  47. seacloud 15 years ago

    These words, these phrases, have value when everyone is in agreement as to what they mean, but used outside of your part of the organization, their value decreases, especially the closer you get to engineering.

    What’s really being pointed out here is that within an organization of any size, there is a ghettoization (sp?) of language and that, when people cross from their ‘ghetto’ to someone else’s, the language doesn’t mean the same thing anymore. Subsequently, when you’re from engineering, the above list is what you hear, regardless of how earnest Jordan from marketing is when he uses the language. However, when Jordan talks to Steve from marketing, their conversation is mutually understood and is probably productive on it’s own terms.

    All of our words have meaning, they just don’t always mean the same thing to the person we’re talking to (anyone who’s married knows exactly what I’m talking about…it happens at home, too!!) 🙂

  48. Ah, I just spit on my monitor because of the description of Milestones. Thanks for the insight and humour!! :o) I have to go find some monitor cleaner.

  49. Diana 15 years ago

    you left out “aggressive” as in “aggressive accounting” (meaning fraudulent accounting)

  50. Jason Thrasher 15 years ago

    Resources: People who actually do the work. Also, the integer number used to count people in a fiefdom. Resources each have a fixed “Capacity”. See MBA.

  51. What about manage expectations?

    This means that the salesman sold you a hilarious delivery with superhuman timescales, and now he’s got his commission we have to tell you what you’re really getting, and when.

  52. Jeff O 15 years ago

    In Leo G’s world, abused children would have to worship their sadistic parents since they owe them their existance. Why point out anything bad in an attempt to improve the situation.

    Don’t knock Rands, afterall, he gave you a forum to express your ungrateful opinion.

  53. Ernesto 15 years ago

    Heh… I enjoyed the list and I agree with much of the sentiment. However, I feel there are some key areas that are incorrect.

    The main problem I find with that list is it shows the a lack of experience working with an effective project manager. And effective PMs are those that rely on some of the underlying concepts of many of those words rather than their buzz-interpretation. For example, identifying what items are in fact “Actionable” vs. abstract, ambiguous dialog is critical to actually accomplishing completed work.

    And while it wasn’t expounded upon greatly, I felt this statement was a little off: “Everyone else outside of engineering has vastly less working knowledge of the product.” To a certain extent, I agree with the concept, but it shows how the gross arrogance of anyone involved in the completion of a project can hurt it. As an engineer, I have some of (if not the greatest) understanding of the execution of function within the product. That does not equate to everyone else having less working knowledge of the product. The “product” is the thing you’re *endeavoring* to create. Not that exists in reality. And by the very fact that as engineers, we’re stuck in the perspective of establishing the best way to execute/integrate the FUNCTIONALITY being expected of the product. This makes our understanding of the product as it would exist in a perfect balance of form, function, and usability grossly misaligned. I count on qualified UX designers, black-box QA, and effective PMs to achieve as close to that ideal.

  54. “thought leadership” – the act of thinking. also as far as you can get from doing (think -> speak -> document -> do)


  55. Tactical: we can’t afford/don’t want to do anything long term, so lemme stick a band-aid on it for now. (also see Strategic)

    Strategic: I know it makes no sense to you now, but trust me, in the long term you’ll come around. Surely it’s better than the crap we have now?

  56. Sound-byte: I didn’t really understand anything you just said, so I want a phrase that I can spit out on cue that makes me seem like have a clue…

  57. Spearhead: “This project isn’t necessary or interesting, but you’re going to spearhead it. Grab it by the ropes and pull it in!”

    Great list of words!

  58. Wow, that was really cynical.

    I think that most of those words denote or describe something that can be helpful and valuable in the real world, which consists of:

    Getting good projects.

    Doing a good job on projects in a reasonable time.

    Making sure everyone understands (at their level of understanding) whether and why a project succeeded or failed.

    But the definitions in this list seem to assume that no one but the engineer can contribute to these activities. I’ve worked in companies like that. They either no longer exist or are no longer places people where want to work. Arrogance and cynicism ruined them.

  59. Thanks for this man. I occasionally work on B2B websites that replace content with walls built of these words. They are, indeed, completely impenetrable – especially to a freelancer who is not acquainted with the bizspeak. Developers and engineers use words that have objective meanings because of course we know what we’re talking about. Bizspeak seems to be so separated from that concrete foundation by so many layers of linguistic abstraction that at some point the foundation is no longer discoverable.

    Maybe it’s a really smart object-oriented API?

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  61. I’ve noticed that people who used “organic process” like in your post are now just saying that they have an “agile process” instead. I guess in a few years they’ll get really loud and announce to everyone that they’ve tried this agile stuff and it just didn’t work!

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  65. I couldn’t agree more. But then again it is 2am where I am so I may agree to anything. And from an Englishman, I want to say thank you for using the apostrophe properly. 😉

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