Office Speak: Super Excited

This may be a common term in other cultures, but I’m British and being excited about anything is something that we only attach to major family events. We find it somewhat baffling when we walk into a business meeting and the people in there tell us that they are super excited to be together.

It’s probably a stretch for most Brits to say that they are excited about a birthday, even a major birthday wouldn’t count as super excited.

The birth of a new child counts as excited. I’m not sure what would need to happen for someone to be super excited about a new birth? Perhaps a couple who have struggled to conceive would make it to super excited when a much desired offspring is born.

So what is it about a routine meeting in a grey room with limited air conditioning and a 1000 bullet point PowerPoint presentation that would make someone super excited?

I was recently given a mug that says:

Meetings: The place we discuss all the things which must happen but will never actually happen.

It doesn’t sound very exciting to me.

The various dictionary definitions of excited talk about being emotionally aroused, something I would expect to see in abundance in the people that tell me they are super excited. Emotional arousal is rarely something I see in the business context, perhaps I’m not as empathetic as I think I am, but I think I ought to be able to see super emotional arousal.

All that I can conclude is that this is Office Speak. It’s no longer good enough to say that you are pleased to be in a meeting, or even excited to be in a meeting, the constant ratcheting up of Office Speak means that people now need to be super excited. Ah well, that’s the way it goes, I wonder what will follow; colossally excited, gigantically excited or perhaps we’ll choose a different word to excited, orgasmic?

Off now to be super excited about a cup of tea.

Office Speak: “Agile with a capital ‘A'” and “agile with a small ‘a'”

We have a way of co-opting words into office speak. The latest for many people in the technology arena is agile.

The word agile means:

able to move quickly and easily.

Something that many organisations aspire to do. They want to move more quickly and without it being so hard to do. In our office speak this has become known as “agile with a small ‘a'”.

This word has then been co-opted by a methodology that was birthed in the software development arena, but is becoming more widely used outside that arena. In our office speak this has become known as “Agile with a capital ‘A'”.

We need to differentiate as we speak so that we know which meaning is being used. It’s easy in written text, but as we speak we have no way of differentiating and sentences can have a very different meaning depending on which is being used:

“My customer wants to be more agile.”

Meaning: customer want to be able to move more quickly and stop taking so long to do anything.

“My customer wants to be more Agile.”

Meaning: customer wants to do a better job of adopting the principle of the Agile Manifesto.

This is where it gets fun, because one of the ways a customer may become more agile is by adopting Agile. Which is easy to understand written down, but when you are speaking you need to say:

one of the ways a customer may become more agile with a small ‘a’  is by adopting Agile with a capital ‘A’.

That’s clear isn’t it?

But it doesn’t stop there. There’s also lean and Lean and sometimes Lean and Agile are used together to help organisations to become more lean and agile 🙂

There’s more, don’t forget about safe and SAFe, waterfall and Waterfall, word and Word, workplace and Workplace, need I go on?

I’m off now to write a few words into a Word document for an organisation that has a nice workplace next to a waterfall about how they may communicate using Workplace as they move away from Waterfall toward Lean and Agile, because they aspire to become more lean and agile 🙂

Office Speak: Industrialise (Industrialisation)

Sometimes words take on a meaning within a subculture that is different to the meaning in the general population.

Industrialise has a widely used meaning.

I live in the UK which is an industrialised nation, arguable it’s a post industrial country, but either way the meaning is the same and it’s the dictionary meaning:

Industrialise: develop industries in (a country or region) on a wide scale.

This meaning of the word is widely used and understandable.

To Industrialise is the process of creating Industry, the noun from which we get the verb is industry.

That’s not what it means in my Office Speak subculture 🙂

In Office Speak Industrialise is used for the process of taking something that is being developed through the various organisational processes that will allow it to be built in a repeatable way.

We need to industrialise the process for shoe lace tying.

We need to industrialise the way that we support light-sabre maker XI.

In my particular sector this use of the word feels like an overstatement. When you think about repeat-ability in the context of a word like industrialisation your perhaps imagining  run-rates like those of a car manufacturer or a mobile phone manufacturer – hundreds of thousands and millions of units. In our context you’d be completely wrong. I work in a segment of the IT business where repeating something a few thousands times would be regarded as a large run, doing something in the tens of thousands being massive.

So why do we use the word? I’m not sure I know, but I suspect it’s got something to do with one of the ways in which we use the word industrial. When we talk about something having an industrial design we tend to mean that it is robust, sturdy, reliable, those kind of a things. In that context industrial is the noun that we then turn into a verb to create the word industrialise, by which I think we mean something like:

Industrialise: To make robust, sturdy, reliable.

Repeat-ability is another, but smaller, part of the meaning.

I’ve always been fascinated by the genesis of words and their meaning in subcultures. Many businesses have a subculture of words that take on specific meanings within that organisation. In my own particular organisations we have existing words that take on new meanings, like industrialise, we have specific words that take on meanings for which there is already a commonly used word, we even have completely new words with new meanings. That’s the joy of communicating, you never quite know what you are saying.

Office Speak: Skate to where the puck is going to be

Imagine that you are sitting in your team meeting and you are in mid flow pontificating about your favourite subject, but you have a problem, you know that at the end of this sentence you have nothing left to say. There’s a real danger that you are going to fall off the cliff and into a dark void of silence. You need something to say and you need it soon. Fortunately you have a stock of cliches ready for this very occasion. Which one will you use? Which of the many are you going to leap to? Are any of them appropriate to this meeting? You flash through the memory cards in your head and settle on an old favourite:

“We need to skate to where the puck is going to be.”

And with that you conclude.

The team nod in agreement as your timely words, everyone apart from the young graduate who has just joined the team. She looks at you blankly:

“I’m sorry, but what does that mean.”

You open your mouth to explain and then realise that you don’t have a sensible explanation. You’ve used this term so many times before, but you’ve never really thought about what it really means, you can’t even remember where you first heard it. You’ve heard it used so many times that it’s become embedded in your psyche.

The reality is, this cliche is a quote:

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.

Wayne Gretzky

As you may have already guessed, it’s an ice hockey reference. Wayne Gretsky was apparently quite good at it, not that I would know, I’m trusting Wikipedia.

The basic idea of the quote is that if you are going to intercept a puck your only hope is to go to where it is going to be by the time you get there. There’s no point in trying to intercept it by going to where it has already been.

The term is regularly used in the technology arena to describe the plans of organisations and their latest innovations. Steve Jobs used the term to describe the approach at Apple:

“There’s an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love. I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been. And we’ve always tried to do that at Apple.”

Quotes from Steve Jobs tend to hit management-speak over-use in no time at all. Every manager dreams of being Steve Jobs after all.

How often the term is relevant in day-to-day business is debatable. There are times when it is very appropriate, but all too often it’s just being used as a filler and not got any authentic meaning.

The blog was brought to you by the word “puck” and the letter “w”.

Concept of the Day: Campbell’s Law

Campbell’s law is defined by the following quote from Donald T. Campbell:

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

In other words: the higher the stakes associated with a measure, the more likely it is that the measure is corrupt and in so doing that the system being measured becomes corrupt.

If you put high stakes against a school exam the more likely it is that people teach to get a high pass mark and in so doing teaching become corrupt.

If you put high stakes against a business measure the more likely it is that people manage to the measure, or even falsify the measure, and in so doing corrupt the business.

There are numerous places where you can see this being worked out historically; the more important question, though, is where is this happening today?

What effect does it have if you stop people’s benefits if they don’t fill out a defined number of job applications?

What effect does it have if you pay a traffic warden on the basis of the number of fines they manage to issue?

What effect does it have if you fine rail operators for late trains?

What effect does it have if you pay doctors on the basis of the number of appointments they complete?

I’m sure there are many, many more.

This little video does a really nice job of explaining Campbell’s Law:

Office Speak: Sunsetting

The other day I received an email along the lines of:

On the first of the month after next we will be sunsetting the whatamI4 system.

I knew what it meant, but it struck me as a strange phrase to use.

I suppose I ought to explain what it meant for those of you who don’t understand the meaning. I’ll replace the word sunsetting with something else to see if that helps:

On the first of the month after next we will be turning off the whatamI4 system

That’s right sunsetting = turning off.

Sunsetting with 10 characters = turning off with 10 characters.

Sunsetting with 3 syllables = turning off with 3 syllables.

I suppose that’s my question, why not just say that it’s being turned off.

Returning to the original sentence, why not say:

On the first of the month after next whatamI4 will be turned off.

There you go, that’s shorter and simpler than either of the previous ones.

Or even:

whatamI4 will be turned off on the first of the month after next

I prefer this because it gives a much better call to action.

I’m not objecting to sunsetting it just feels like redundant complexity.

Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair though. There is a picture being drawn here and there is a difference between turning off and sunsetting. The term sunsetting is trying to communicate that the light is drawing in on a the application and that it’s time to move over to something else. Turning something off happens quite quickly, even instantaneously; sunsetting may happen over an extended period.

It’s not a word I hear people use in normal life though – it’s office speak.

Office Speak: Yak Shaving

Have you ever started something and regretted it soon after, that’s not a definition of Yak Shaving but is the way I’ve felt writing this post.

There is no law of office speak, no one is the overall governor of the meaning of office speak in different context. For this reason I like to research the meaning before I write these posts to see whether my understanding of the term is widespread. There are many useful places to do this research; if a number of them agree I generally go with that definition.

It’s interesting to research the history of office speak to see how long it’s been around and how many iterations it’s been through.

I think I’ve worked out the history of Yak Shaving but it’s not absolutely straightforward and neither is the explanation of that meaning.

In Wiktionary there are two definitions:

1. Any apparently useless activity which, by allowing you to overcome intermediate difficulties, allows you to solve a larger problem.
2. A less useful activity done consciously or unconsciously to procrastinate about a larger but more useful task.

If you look into the discussion for these two definitions a number of people have commented that the second definition isn’t correct. I’m happy with that, because definition two doesn’t align to my understanding either. The first definition fits my understanding, so I’ll stick with that.

The history of Yak Shaving with this meaning appears to come from MIT where a student, Carlin Vieri, is credited with inventing it:

“Yak shaving.” Our very own Carlin Vieri invented the term, and yet it has not caught on within the lab. This is a shame, because it describes all too well what I find myself doing all too often.

You see, yak shaving is what you are doing when you’re doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you’re supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations links what you’re doing to the original meta-task.

There’s a less clarity on where Carlin Vieri got the term from, but it’s probably from a Ren & Stimpy episode.

Yak Shaving one of those terms that’s best described by an example:

//s.imgur.com/min/embed.jsThe other day I noticed that one of the lights in the bathroom wasn’t working. I’d recently changed the light-bulb so suspected that there may be a wiring problem. To investigate I needed to get into the loft.

To get into the loft I needed to get the step-ladders that were in the garage.

We’d recently had a number of large deliveries. The boxes from these deliveries were stacked in front of the step-ladders. To get access to the step-ladders I put the boxes in the car and took them to the nearest recycling centre.

On my way to the recycling centre I noticed that I was low on fuel so I went to the garage for some petrol.

As payment for the fuel I withdrew some money from the ATM at the garage.

This is the nature of Yak Shaving – my goal was to fix a light, but I ended up doing all sorts of necessary apparently useless things before I could complete the task. In business we spend much of our time Yak Shaving:

  • Claiming expenses is Yak Shaving
  • Approval processes are Yak Shaving
  • Many, many meetings are Yak Shaving