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The 59 Steps Guide to Great Business Clichés: Part One

October 23, 2011

I like to think of myself as a happy, positive sort of person. But those who know me well will be aware that I have a dark side. Underneath my sunny exterior lurks a nasty, cynical and destructive alter ego. I keep him chained in a dark room usually. But occasionally it can be worthwhile letting him out to play for a while, so that he doesn’t get too resentful about his incarceration.

So in the next three posts I shall be giving you a glimpse of the Steve you don’t want to know. The subject is business clichés. Words and phrases you and I use with monotonous regularity when we write, speak and think about business.

As we grow up, we develop a vocabulary that we use without a second thought. Very rarely do we stop and think about what we’re actually saying. As long as the other person understands what we’re talking about, that’s OK, isn’t it?

Well, I suppose so. But sometimes I like to stop and consider the language I use. And when I do, I often shudder at the fact that I’m complicit in peddling words and phrases that are manipulative, woolly, inappropriate and even plain false.

And that’s when the alter ego comes roaring out of its dark room. So here – in three parts – are the words of the beast – unkind, bitchy and full of gross generalisations and cheap shots – on some of the great business clichés of our time:

Adding value

Also known as adding profit – the value bit is often debatable. The most abused phrase in corporate-speak. Most often used in connection with my current most favourite three-word prefix – “the appearance of”.

Best practice

A hoary old phrase that I am as guilty as anyone of trotting out on occasion. Often used in connection with the spurious concept of benchmarking. So what we do is go to twenty companies that we think do things well. We find out how and why. We package up a neat set of metrics and indicators, and hey presto, there’s our best practice!

The only problem comes when we sell benchmarking to other companies to persuade them to buy our expensive consultancy. By the time we run the rule over our client, often as not the benchmarks we use are out of date. So we are advocates of best practice that may already be redundant. After all, a lot changes in a couple of months, right? Anyone following the January 2011 best practice for effective dictatorship would by April have been donning a concrete life jacket, I suspect.

Business as usual

When a business starts on about “business as usual”, it is usually making a statement in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Otherwise, why would they bother to make the statement in the first place? And when states use the phrase, who are they kidding? Name a single country or region in this interesting year that could honestly claim that it’s business as usual in their backyard. Apart from North Korea, perhaps.

Challenge

The world is full of self-help philosophers who preach that we should always put a positive spin on adversity. To use a negative word implies negative thinking. So these days, instead of problems, crises and disasters, we have challenges.

If I’m about to lose my house through foreclosure, I’m sorry, that’s not a challenge, it’s a personal problem that needs resolving. 

Champion

A champion in business is not a winner, not a defender of the true path, as the word is used in other contexts. In business, the champion is at the vanguard of the revolution. The person that the executive sends into battle to convert the unbelievers. The evangelist. The advocate.

In other words, it’s a person who is encouraged to put their head above the parapet. And when the thing they’re championing  fails to gain traction, they are the ones who crash and burn, not the executives who put them up to it. They sail on serenely – another day, another cause.

Change agent

First cousin of champion. A change agent, apparently, is someone who acts as a catalyst in an organisation for bringing about change.

Let’s think about this. Do we mean someone who influences, persuades and manipulates? So that rules out Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussain as great change agents. Maybe, maybe not. At the beginning of their careers, they definitely had to do their fair share of influencing and manipulating. But as soon as they weaseled their way to power, we all klnow what happened.

So beware the change agent. Today’s touchy-feely propagators of the new are tomorrow’s tyrants of orthodoxy.

Corridor of uncertainty

This is a phrase that has not emigrated from the cricket field, but surely will. It’s supposed to have been invented by Geoffrey Boycott, former England cricketer, to describe a ball bowled in an area that leaves the batsman uncertain how to play it. The revered Geoffrey, perhaps the most boring, self-obsessed and blinkered batsman in the history of cricket rarely encountered such uncertainty. He just kept grinding away to century after century (note for non-cricket lovers – a century is a mark of achievement), oblivious of his colleagues and the state of the game, as we spectators dozed the afternoons away.

It seems tailor-made for corporate use – “friends, we are facing a corridor of uncertainty..” Only a matter of time, I suspect.

Empowerment

A word beloved of corporate cultures whose denizens clearly are not empowered. What they usually mean is “the appearance of empowerment”. But when it comes down to it, as the redundancy notices are handed out, the disgruntled survivors start muttering “you can fool some of the people some of the time…”.

Employee engagement

Engagement used to be what you did before you got married. Or the process of entering into some form of contact with another. These days it’s a fluffy catch-all beloved by HR consultants, who sell expensive surveys to companies whose managers could find out all they need to know about the state of mind of their employees by bothering to walk around, look and listen.

Employer of choice

I like this one. It’s a pompous way of describing a great company to work for. These days, sadly, few people have a choice of whom they work for. Most people are grateful that they still have a job. Only the Brahmins of business and the most adept self-publicists can gaze from their commanding heights, point their fingers at the companies that pay the best bonuses, have free organic restaurants and innovation pods resembling the Big Brother House, and say “I choose you!”. This is an era of necessity, not choice.

Evangelist

There is a strong spiritual element to today’s corporate language. Is it because the US, the true home of corporate-speak, is so heavily influenced by the religious right that so many buzzwords with spiritual or religious connotations have entered our business vocabulary?

Partly, I would say. Actually, I reckon that corporate America is caught in a spiritual pincer movement – between the holy rollers and the new age mystics. Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs (“I’m doing God’s work”), and Steve Jobs of Apple (the prince of Zen minimalism) are prime examples of the two camps. Either way, it’s hard to do business in the US without paying lip-service to faith and spirituality of some sort.

Unfortunately, we Brits are a touch more cynical. I remember a vendor conference organised by a leading telecommunications company in the 90’s. Inspirational speakers, stirring music, calls to action – a cross between a revivalist meeting and a Nuremburg rally. It went down like a lead balloon. On the whole, we are not given to outbursts of irrational emotion, unless we happen to support some no-hope football team.

It’s much the same in British politics. As Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press secretary once remarked: “the Labour Party doesn’t do God”.

Facilitate

A dictionary definition of facilitate is “to make easy, to help bring about, to preside over”. Sadly, the business world is full of people who facilitate, but their purpose is primarily to avoid actually doing anything themselves. Modern facilitators float, delegate, network and influence. The last thing they want to do is actually roll up their sleeves and achieve anything. That’s for others to do.

There is a very unkind saying that denigrates the noble profession of teaching. It goes: “those who can’t do, teach”. It’s cruel and unfair, but there’s a grain of truth when applied to lousy ones. I have a variant, which I call Royston’s First Law:

 “Those who can’t do, facilitate”.

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