Drilling Down Into Boiled Oceans: The Real Problem With Business Buzzwords

"Going forward! Over the wall! Reach out! Leverage! Opening the kimono!" Yeah, we know.

In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell shows how loose language masks stupid thinking. To make his point, the author translates a passage from Ecclesiastes from good to modern English. Let's review.

The old and beautiful:

  • "I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

And the modern and ugly:

  • "Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."

Does Orwell's lesson remind you of a learnings you've recently had? If so, your boss may be battering your ears with management-speak.

Why is this jargon-knotted language so dangerous? As Guardian writer Steven Poole observes, buzzwords deflect blame, complicate simple ideas, obscure problems, and perpetuate power relations. So let's get to the detangling.

Why do we leverage when we could use?

Because, as Orwell notes, vague, unconsidered writing and speaking is easy. The human default to ease is inborn and barely noticed, as Daniel Kahneman notes in Thinking, Fast and Slow: We take the nice-feeling, low transaction cost of cognitive ease to sign that we're doing quite well—and we'll continue on our merry, ignorant way unless we examine it.

An example: When you say you're going to "drill down" a project, you don't need to go through the messy mindwork of considering the details that you're detailing. It's vocabulary as Snapchat: quick, easy, disposable.

Sunsetting corporate speak

Poole's piece reflects British office life—and if television has taught us anything, it's well worth investigating its American analog.

And so let us get to three of the worst offenders:

Stakeholders: Poole notes that the "plump with cheaply bought respect" term came in from British New Labour politics, transforming stakeholders from vampire slayers to a people with financial interests in a project. And as business analyst Emma Sheldrick observes, when they say "manage our stakeholders," they really mean "placate the people who are asking the intelligent questions about why something is being done."

Sunset: Though less severe than when Orwell noted that when
setting huts on fire with incendiary bullets is pacification, sunset is of a similar retch-worthy euphemism: To say that you're "sunsetting a task" is gentler than "killing" or "canceling" it—though the project perishes regardless of the verbiage.

Leverage: Poole diagnoses that "to leverage" is no more than "to use" or "to exploit," yet for some reason we are compelled to leverage this unfortunate import from high finance. It's blurry, opaque imagery waiting to happen, as the author illustrates:

  • Give me a place to stand and I will move the world, said Archimedes. He didn't say he would leverage the deliverables matrix.

What's your most-hated form of corporate jargon-speak? Don't sunset your frustrations—leverage our comments section!

10 of the worst examples of management-speak

[Image: Flickr user Dwayne Bent]

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8 Comments

  • Oddball

    We don't have to go far for euphemisms... FC could be guilty of reaching out by advertising "trending articles", which according to my associative skills mean "items that are being read by a greater population.

  • Maya

    As a real, i.e bricks and mortar type architect... I find the flagrant overuse of 'Architecture'  and 'Architects' exasperating.. 
    Especially when introducing your self as an architect elicits the response, "What kind?" !!
    " The licensed kind..........!" 

  • The_Mule

    Or as I remember as a boy watching an early film version of Alice In Wonderland.  One character said to Alice, 'a word means what I want it to mean when i want it to mean it.  That catch phase became my prizm into adult speak.  As sloppy and as evasive as possible and purposely so; meant to give cover and provide  distraction, not to clarify.  And as sthe seconds ticketed by, they generally made their escape.  Welcome to the modren world.  [Yes!  Modren!]

  • David Chase

    "Map to" is my favorite meaningless business term. "You need to show how the recommendations map to the requirements." How about using "compare to" or "reflect" instead? And just how does one "map to" something? Does that mean drawing a map, or connecting points on a map, or what?

    Other winners include: 
    "The (blank)s of this world", as in "This is only done by the Apples or the Microsofts of this world." You mean by Apple or Microsoft? How many other Apples or Microsofts (or whatevers) are there--in this world or in any other plane of existence?

    "On the ground", as in "We need to assess the situation on the ground." This typically refers to something happening in a distant location, but rather than saying "over there" we get "on the ground." Where else would it be--hovering in mid-air?

  • Jim

    I'm tired of hearing "....at the end of the day...." applied to a whole variety of things and ideas and experiences. The latest came from a doctor to a friend of mine---"at the end of the day, your illness will be cured." Huh? Where did this jargon come from? I've searched and can't find it...so at the end of the day I'll have to wait till someone else does.

  • Bitfool

    "FC idea: leverage another buzzwords article as clickbait. Instead of bleeding edge examples, we'll recycle Orwell."  Personally, I think this topic should be sunsetted.

  • Josh V

    One that always irritates me is the phrase "bleeding edge". When did bleeding edge replace cutting edge? There was a tipping point when the phrase cutting edge just wasn't cutting edge enough, so they had to come up with something even more cutting edge. And so bleeding edge was born. It's playing into the extreme era. Everything has to be more extreme than their peers, otherwise it's worthless. We don't want to be on the cutting edge. All of our peers are on the cutting edge! We have to be on the bleeding edge! And when they catch up and are on the bleeding edge too, well then we'll have to advance to the lacerating edge!