Office Speak: “Paradigm Shift”

Sometimes you think you know what something means, and then you look into it and you are no longer sure. You hear someone say something in a context and you are convinced of the meaning, but perhaps the meaning has been defined by the context.

Today’s Office Speak is a favourite term of a mythical group of people known as the Agents of Change (we’ll get to that one another day). These Agents roam the earth calling people to see beyond their day-to-day way of thinking and to make a Paradigm Shift.

a typical example or pattern of something; a pattern or model.
“society’s paradigm of the ‘ideal woman’”

We were gifted the term Paradigm Shift by Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) who was talking about changes in the basic fundamentals of scientific discipline driving a scientific revolution:

A scientific revolution occurs, according to Kuhn, when scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. The paradigm, in Kuhn’s view, is not simply the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. This is based on features of landscape of knowledge that scientists can identify around them.


Our own world views have been impacted by these scientific revolutions. There was a time when people didn’t know that germs existed, imagine the change that they went through once it was understood. It’s not that long ago that DNA was discovered and we are all in the middle of the science revolution that this is enabling. That’s the level of a Paradigm Shift as described by Kuhn – a complete change of worldview.

You may have seen this diagram before, it was used by Kuhn to illustrate that a different perspective can change the meaning:


I’m going to assume that you can all see the two different creatures being shown here?

Let’s return to those Change Agents that patrol the typical office environment requesting a Paradigm Shift here and another one over there. What are they really calling for? Are they calling for a scientific revolution in our day-to-day office existence? Or, as I suspect, are they asking us to squint a bit and look at something in a slightly different way. This tendency to overstate is quite common in Office Speak.

Rather than saying:

“We need a paradigm shift here.”

Perhaps it would be better to say:

“Is there a different way of thinking about this?”

Or even:

“Perhaps we need to look at this a different way.”

It may be that I’m just being a bit too British about this, but it sometimes feel like we call all change a Paradigm Shift when all we’ve really done is moved from one desk to another, or changed from one colour scheme to another. These don’t quite compare to Einsteinian General Relativity do they? Perhaps the Agents of change or rewarded for the number of times that they use it? Or Perhaps it’s just become a lazy way of saying “we need to change what we are doing”?

Header Image: This is the view from Eagle Crag down Borrowdale an a cold but beautiful day in 2019.

Office Speak: “laser-focused”

Where to start on this one? Perhaps context is the thing that’s required and perhaps an (fictitious?) example will start to give that context:

“As a team we are laser-focused on resolving your issue with our service.”


“As an organisation we are laser-focused on delivering to the strategy that we outlined.”

The basic idea being portrayed is that a person or organisation is “focusing” their attention/talent/energy/etc. on a particular issue. The use of the world “laser” is meant to portray a number of sentiments like high-energy, straight, bright, intense and pointed.

If you search for the term laser focused you’ll see that most of the results are focused on maintaining attention:

  • 13 Ways to Develop Laser-Like Focus
  • How to Stay Laser-Focused on Your Goals
  • 3 Strategies That’ll Help You Laser-Focus on (Almost) Anything at Work
  • Why Laser Focus Leads to Success

Focus is clearly a common problem for which we all need 13 ways, 3 strategies, 7 tips and 4 daily rituals 😏, but I’m in danger of loosing focus, so must continue.

As a sentiment statement I kind of understand it, but I have a problem with the metaphor being portrayed – a pinpoint-narrow focus rarely solved anything

The reality is, if you are going to solve an issue it’s rare that a narrow focus is going to get you to an answer. Good answers tend to come from an open attitude. If you are trying to find something in a darkened room it’s more productive to fill the whole room with a small amount of light than to have a very bright light on a small dot.

Focus is what’s required to get anything done, the bit I struggle with is the laser-like-ness of the word picture.

I’ll leave you with a bit of a technical question: can you focus a laser?

Header Image: Today’s image at the top of this post is from the approach to Rossett Pike looking along the Mickleden and Great Langdale Valleys, with the Pike of Stickle to the left of the image.

Office Speak: “I’ll give you 2 minutes back.”

You are sitting on a conference call that thankfully is nearing it’s long and bitter end. It’s the fifth or sixth of the day and your ears are the temperature of the inside of an oven underneath the plastic covers that they’ve had on for the last few hundred minutes. Your bladder has reached volume level 11 and is screaming for some relief. Your head is numb from the diversity of subjects that you’ve had to give your attention to and then the person who has been facilitating your torture for the last 58 minutes says, in a tone which suggests that it’s a special gift:

“We’ve reached the end of our agenda, so I’ll give you 2 minutes back.”

There are many variations of this line which may be 5 minutes, or even 10. It’s rarely more than that because it’s almost unheard of that someone who has booked an hour long meeting successfully expedites departure in 30 minutes. We all know, after all, that meetings generally grow to fill the available space.

There you sit, looking at your gift of a few minutes and think to yourself “what am I supposed to do with that?”

You take a quick trip to the toilet, but that doesn’t take you more than a minute and now you’ve only got a minute, or perhaps two, left. What are you going to do?

You don’t have any emails to look through because that’s what you were doing for much of the last 58 minutes and the few minutes you have aren’t going to make much difference to any backlog anyway.

Perhaps you have enough time to make a drink, but you’ve already had enough coffee and your bladder is still recovering.

There’s no point in trying to progress any of the actions that you’ve picked up in the previous calls because they all require you to think and you’re not capable of that type of thinking at this time in the day.

You haven’t seen any daylight yet so a walk outside would lift your spirits, but there’s barely enough time to get to the front door of the building before you need to be on another call. There’s not even enough time for a nap.

And so, you sit there, wondering what you are supposed to do with this gift that you have been given and watch it walk steadily and slowly out of the room.


Office Speak: Onboarding

The Very Short Version

The act of joining and integrating into an organisation, but also…

The Longer (More Interesting?) Version

There are certain words which I like and others that I don’t. My preference for a word often relates to its feel and aesthetic. I like word which are simple and elegant, onboarding, to me, is neither of these things. I see it as a clumsy overweight word that doesn’t have a straightforward meaning or portray a complete concept. For onboarding this distaste is compounded by my common dislike of flipping a verb into a noun, particularly when the original word in this case was an adjective.

The concept that onboarding is trying to portray is one of someone joining a ship or a plane – getting on board. This concept was at some point in the late 1990s applied to people joining an organisation and thus was born the term onboarding, it was rarely used before then. Wikipedia relates the term to organisational socialisation and in what is quite a long article highlights the various approaches and challenges of onboarding. Whilst I, personally, don’t like the word it makes sense in this context and highlights an important challenge that many organisations experience as people join them and try to become productive. Onboarding as, if nothing else, easier to say than organisational socialisation.

This is where, for me, the more significant problem arises – term expansion and subsequent degradation. Sometimes it feels like every act of implementation or change has become onboarding:

“I’m just onboarding this application”

“Next week we will onboard our new facilities”

“We are in the process of onboarding several updated processes”

“We are looking forward to onboarding our new customer”

“The new cat is part way through the onboarding activities”

None of these are organisational socialisation, apart from, perhaps, the cat.

This is what happens in the modern world of corporate speak, people leap into using a term that they perceive everyone else is using without understanding its origin or original meaning. This leads to expansion of the term’s meaning and a degradation of its value. Eventually the meaning is so diverse that another term gets picked and the cycle continues.

We don’t appear to have reached peak onboarding yet, if the Google search trends are anything to go by, but I suspect that we will have found a replacement for it in the next few years. I wonder what the replacement will be?

Office Speak: The Tracker

The Very Short Version

A tracker is a list: Normally it’s a list of activities that need to be tracked and is often created in Microsoft Excel.

The Longer (More Interesting?) Version

A tracker is a list which is commonly a list of activities that someone has decided to put together for their own purposes which has sometimes been created from a template. The common purpose of a tracker is to place responsibility on other people for completion of the activities within it. The infection mechanism for trackers is simple, only requiring an individuals name or initials to be added to a line in a tracker at some point. Once added the individual is permanently infected by the tracker with limited chance of rehabilitation. Individuals do not need to be present to become infected.

Trackers are reproducing organisms that can multiply into plague inducing swarms if hygiene activities are not undertaken. There can be multiple trackers for each activity and multiple activities within a tracker, there are even organisations with trackers that track the number of trackers. Each tracker is commonly associated with a progress meeting which will require all of the infected members to attend for the entirety of the meeting even though they may only have limited exposure to the disease. A single record on a tracker is enough to mandate attendance at the progress meeting, some trackers have several hundred records associated with them and the expectation is that every line in the tracker is being worked on.

The common tracker is also likely to morph from a simple organism into a complex mind-bending organism that confuse everyone apart from the creator of the tracker. The scope of a tracker is one of it’s primary morphing mechanisms, the scope is rarely limited which allows it to grow and shrink at any time.

The primary infection source for trackers is Microsoft Excel which, when combined with email can achieve impressive rates of disease amongst the standard workforce. This form of contagion is extremely difficult to monitor as it slips unseen into the normal operation of many businesses through the standard communication mechanisms. The multiplication effect of email communicated trackers produces a significant increase in repetitive data being sent across these mechanisms whilst at the same time making the creation of a comprehensive view of the works required almost impossible. The lack of a comprehensive view of activities is commonly managed through the use of another tracker.

Trackers are non-exclusive infectors with workers experiencing the combined effects from exposure to multiple trackers. The nature of these symptoms differ between the trackers with each tracker having morphed slightly from its previous incarnation and trackers themselves having no defined structure, other than being based on a list. Individuals with multiple tracker infections will be expected to attend the progress meeting for each infection, even if the infection relates to a single activity being undertaken.

One effect of trackers is to make people colour-blind, this has been concluded from a multi-year review of the contents of trackers and the formatting of the cells within these trackers. Particular favourites are red text-on-blue background and yellow text-on-green background.

It is very rare for a tracker to die, they nearly always become dormant before they can be completed. They then lie dormant until someone, generally the person who created them, revives them and reinvigorates the infection for the people named within the tracker.

Some trackers are able to slip under the attention radar and possess cloaking capabilities. If an individual has not noticed an infection by a particular tracker they are liable to be embarrassed in a progress meeting. If you are invited to a progress meeting it is likely that you have been infected even though that infection may not be evident.  Trackers do not actively alert those that have been infected, the disease lies cloaked until a meeting.

Other, more effective, mechanisms for tracking activity do exist and can be successfully deployed as a vaccine, but these are only partially successful and rarely eradicate the tracker infestation completely. This does not mean that attempts to do so are without merit because deployment of alternative mechanisms will allow workers to be effective in the parts of their life where the tracker has been eliminated.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with tracker infections, I am considering the creation of a support group for those impacted and would like to know whether you would be interested in attending. I will, of course, create a tracker for this.

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 🙂