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The 59 Steps Guide to Great Business Clichés: Part Three

October 23, 2011

The last episode in my trilogy of ignorant and unfair critiques of the great business clichés of our time. It’s by no means comprehensive, and you are welcome to contribute your favourites, just as long as you are no more offensive than I have been – which gives you some latitude. In fact, if the list goes viral (see below), I might be tempted to launch a Cliché of the Year award. Sponsored by Verve Cliché, perhaps.

Seedbed

I saw this one the other day. It belongs to the environmental family of platitudes. A seedbed, in business terms, is where you plant the seed of a business and let it grow until it’s ready to be re-planted in a more robust environment.  A nice, gentle way of describing the deliberate fostering of new businesses. Better, I think, than incubation, which implies an element of intensive care. Sits nicely alongside “green shoots of recovery”.

Whenever I think of these agricultural metaphors, I can’t help remembering one of Peter Sellers’ last movies, Being There, in which he plays a simpleton gardener who is mistaken for a sage by a gullible US president. Enjoy this clip.

Singularity

I mention singularity – the point at which computers become more intelligent than humans – because it’s a prime example of the creeping conversion of adjectives into nouns ending in …ity. If I want to appear smarter than you, this is an ideal device. We use “modality” instead of “way” or “route”. “Polarity” to describe two factions beating the crap out of each other.  How long will it be before we describe the state of being inspired as “inspirationality”? Oh Greeks and Romans, we have much to blame you for.

Soft

Soft power, soft skills and so on. Toilet paper is soft. Skin is soft, beds are soft. The exercise of power by suggestion and manipulation and influence definitely is not soft. Nor are the skills needed to lead, decide, negotiate and manage.

Smart

Smart phones, smart cars, smart drugs, smart everything. One of those emotional trigger words beloved of the admen, like sustainable, green and friendly. It implies that those who don’t buy smart products are not smart, not to say stupid. Think about it folks. Every product that improves upon a predecessor is smart, right?

Stakeholder

Facilitators love stakeholders. When calling a meeting they summon three times the number of people who actually need to be there, because they need to “get all the stakeholders involved”. The result: three times the hot air, three times the time wasted.

When companies talk about stakeholders, they really mean all those annoying people who stop them from getting on with their business of “maximising shareholder value”. They are the same organisations for whom “people are our greatest asset”, that are “environmentally friendly” and “socially responsible”. But not at the expense of the annual bonus, preferably.

Sometimes I think that the only truly honest businessmen in the developed world are the Chinese, who don’t seem to give a cuss about their employees, the environment or any other obstacle to the pursuit of profit.

State of the art

What art? Is an oil refinery art? Is a computer art? Well, if you’re Steve Jobs, I guess so. But for the rest of us, art is something that enhances our lives, not some piece of tin that we’re persuaded to buy because everyone else on the bus has one.

Sustainable

Sustainable energy, sustainable development, sustainable business. This one of those words that means everything or nothing. I’ve used it myself, I’m ashamed to admit. But what is sustainable? A mayfly’s life is sustainable if you happen to be a mayfly. Sustainable under what definition? A house built to last for 20 years would not be sustainable to the Normans, who built castles that still stand today, a thousand years after they were built. And how about plutonium-239, that has a half-life of 24,000 years? Now that’s sustainable.

The word is no better than verbal sugar. Empty calories that make you feel good for a short time but end up hardening your cognitive arteries.

Talent

Another of those pervasive words that have strayed far from the original. Often used by the HR folks to describe the process of making the best people in an organisation better. It’s been my experience that the best people don’t need some corporate bureaucrat armed with flow-charts, forms and psychometric tests to bring nurture their abilities into a corporate-shaped talent sausage. What they actually need is for people to take an interest in them as humans, to encourage them and spend time with them. And maybe give them a little love. For a previous and possibly more sensible post on this subject, go here.

Einstein, Gates, Jobs and Brunel, people of true talent, blossomed because they had an inner engine that drove them to success, not because they came within the orbit of a “talent manager”.

Think

The use of the word think in the context of comparisons annoys me intensely. As in “think Adolf Hitler in ballet shoes”. Or “think Lord of the Rings meets Gardeners Question Time”. Often used by very cool travel and food writers. What did that poor little preposition “of” do to be excluded from its rightful place?

Transparency

Usually a word that describes our expectation of others. When it comes to being transparent ourselves, our enthusiasm wanes somewhat. Ask Julian Assange. In truth, transparency is an illusion. Behind every layer you peel away lies another.

Rationalise

What we need here are some good Anglo-Saxon words of one syllable. Fire, cut, slash, burn. In most cases, there is nothing rational about rationalisation. It’s what you do when you don’t have the imagination to do anything else. It’s what you do to save your own skin. It’s the consequence of short term thinking either before the crisis you’re dealing with or in your method of dealing with it.

Nobody will criticise you when you fire 30,000 employees if the corpse of a company you’re left with turns a profit for a few quarters. Until you wake up to find that you’ve lost huge chunks of knowledge, and the survivors are busy packing their parachutes. All because you did what conventional wisdom expected you to do, rather than what you should have done.

Remember also that another meaning of the word is to explain something away by reasoning, often false. A very useful business tool, no?

Viral

With apologies to Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Tipping Point, everyone is chasing the viral holy grail. Mostly they fail to find it because it is very difficult to manufacture a virus. They tend to happen by accident. Hit or miss.

So don’t be fooled by all those gurus who try to take money from you because they know the secret of viral marketing. If they did, they’d be using the techniques for their own enrichment. Remember Royston’s First Law:

“Those that can, do. Those that can’t, facilitate.”

Royston’s Second Law, by the way, states that

“Those who can’t do or facilitate go into HR”.

That way the HR people can facilitate the facilitators.

World class

OK, so presumably world class means “up there with the best in the world”. Notice that few users of the phrase bother to qualify their claim. Biggest, best, most profitable? And what defines “not world class”?

Worst-case scenario

Come on folks, there’s no such thing as a worst-case scenario, apart from a global extinction event, the apocalypse (for those who are not saved), and the unfortunate discovery that the afterlife we’ve been counting on doesn’t exist.

Actually, there is a worse scenario than the absence of an afterlife. That is the possibility that we will roast in hell for eternity. Not good.

And death is a good place to end this little anthology of ranting, I think.

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