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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