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:

// 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

Office Speak: In the Wheelhouse

I’ve heard this phrase quite a bit recently, it’s one of those that comes and then it goes again. It’s primarily used by my colleague from the other side of the Atlantic where I suspect it’s a common phrase.

That’s right in our wheelhouse

What do we need to do to get this nearer our wheelhouse?

I’d always assumed that it was a boating term – boats have wheelhouses and that’s the place where you control the boat – so being in the wheelhouse is the place where you are in control, but that’s not the common way that people are using it. The wheelhouse is also a baseball idiom, which explains why it’s not used very much on this side of the Atlantic.

I’m British; pessimism is my wheelhouse.

John Oliver

As baseball slang the wheelhouse is what we’d call in cricket the sweet-spot.

It’s the point in the swing action and on the bat where the batter/hitter has the most power.

In office speak the wheelhouse is the place of maximum competency for your organisation. If there’s a piece of business that’s right in your wheelhouse then you are confident in your ability to win it, it’s what you do.

Cultural slang can be just as challenging as difficult as other office speak.

Office Speak: Millennial-washing

I’m starting to feel like we are in a world of Millennial-washing.

Unlike other Office Speak posts this one isn’t one I’ve heard in my office, but is one I think we should start using.

For those of you who have been on a multi-year retreat in the Himalayas without access to electricity, the Millennials are that group of people who are currently entering the workforce and were born somewhere between the early 1980’s and the early 2000’s. According to the commentators something happened around then that turned this group of individuals into magic other-beings, or something like that. Anyway, it’s safe to say that they are the current marketing buzzword.

This gets me to my current issue and that’s what I’m calling millennial-washing. This isn’t, as the name may suggest, the application of detergent to the extremities of people in their twenties and thirties, this is the gratuitous overuse of the term Millennial into each and every context particularly where it’s irrelevant. I’m not the first to use this term, a search on Google will highlight posts from 2012.

As an example of what is going on. I was listening to a presentation the other day about the Internet of Things (those of you recently back from the Himalayas click on the link. I don’t have time to describe it here and it’s not really that important what the talk was about). In that talk the presenter went on to explain how the Millennials were going to be the primary driver of the Internet of Things. My head hit the table in despair. The Internet of Things is a broad technology shift that is going to have an impact in all sorts of areas, industries and definitely across generations, but the presenter felt the need to wedge the Millennials in there as something unique. It was like they were needing to give their talk some relevance by calling on the M word.

A while back technology companies needed to put the word cloud into every announcement even when it had absolutely nothing to do with cloud. We came to know this as cloud-washing.

I’m starting to feel like we are in a world of Millennial-washing. In this world something is cool and relevant if you can attached the M word to it. I’ve seen articles about churches, synagogues, Broadway, underwear, power-bricks, newspapers, Mike Oldfield, shoes and hotels – all of which calling on the M word. There is a church with Millenial in its title. Are the Millennials requirements for power-bricks different from everyone else’s? Is Best Western’s new branding really about something unique for Millennials, or did the old branding get a bit dated and need refreshing (for everyone)? Isn’t this just Millennial-washing?

(Off now to speak to some snake people)

Office Speak: Single Pane of Glass

When you get into a car as a driver you put the key in the ignition (or press a button) and the dashboard lights up. Most of the time the car will go through its start-up checks showing you a set of icons that eventually go off and tell you that it’s OK to get going. Once in motion the dials on the dashboard will show you various pieces of information about the car.

(Ever wondered why it’s called a dashboard? The name goes all the way back to horse-drawn carriages where the dash-board was in the same place as the modern dashboard to stop the driver and passengers from getting covered in material “dashed-up” from the horses hoof)

People have, for some time now, taken the dashboard analogy and applied it to business and IT systems saying that what people needed was a dashboard of the system.

Like many things in business and in particular IT the dashboard analogy resulted in a huge number of dashboards. In my experience every business application and every technology has something that it calls a dashboard. Thus was born the concept of a single pane of glass to deliver need for a unified dashboard that consolidates everything that’s available in all the other dashboards.

(I had thought that this phrase was dead, but I’ve heard it several times recently)

I have seen many projects for delivered a single pane of glass. I have been involved in a few single pane of glass projects. I have never seen a successful single pane of glass project. I have seen a couple of projects come close to delivering a successful single pane of glass for a defined group of people and a moderate set of requirements. The reality is, no one really wants a single pane of glass, they want insight into the system and they want to understand where problems are, but they don’t need a single pane of glass to do it.

Cars don’t even have a single pane of glass, the driver has a dashboard, but once you open up the bonnet there are all sorts of indicators of vehicle health (fluid level indicators, dip-stick), plug a computer into the telemetry and you get even more insights into the health of the vehicle. As a driver you don’t want to see all the telemetry because it’s not helping you drive. As a mechanic the warning light on the dashboard doesn’t give you enough information.

Must business and IT systems are more complex than a car. The manager of that system may want one view of it, but it’s also likely that they want different views depending on the system and the current health of that system. The same is true for the operator of the system. They probably want a summary dashboard, but that’s not the same thing as a single pane of glass that brings all the information together. The summary dashboard may also provide links to all the other dashboards because that would be helpful, but it’s still not integrating everything into a single pane of glass. Apologies, I’m going on now, you get the idea.

Office Speak: Greenfielding

“We need to do some greenfielding of this process”

This one is relatively easy to take apart, but you do need some prior knowledge of the green-field metaphor.

In the UK a greenfield is a fresh, new, undeveloped field; we even go as far to describe areas of greenfield land as green-belt and have specially designated areas for such. Green-belt development is normally regarded as a bad thing.

The opposite of greenfield is brownfield. This is land which has previously been developed and carries some legacy from that development. In the physical world a brownfield development might be an extension to an existing facility or the addition of a new facility within an existing development.

This concept has been taken on in a number of contexts giving us, for instance, greenfield software development projects. A greenfield project is fresh, new and undeveloped; starting without any consideration to what has gone before it and ignoring any of the constraints. Likewise software development projects that add to an existing capability are known as brownfield projects.

Greenfielding is, therefore, the process of starting afresh. I’m not sure why starting afresh isn’t used but that’s the mystery of most Office Speak. I think previously we would have used the phrase “we need to start from a blank piece of paper here.”

“We start each day with a blank sheet of paper in front of us, and what we write on it is up to us.”

John Larkin

Office Speak: Cadence

Why do words and phrases seep into the psyche of an organisation? It’s a question that has puzzled me for some time.

One word that has recently become the ‘in word’ is: Cadence.

I have no idea where it came from and I had assumed it was one of our internal words. Recently I’ve heard it used by other people in other organisations so decided that it’s use must have become more widespread, though not commonplace. One of my tests of whether something is office-speak or normal-speak is to ask Sue (my wife) if she knows what it means. When she looks blank I know that I’ve spent too long on conference calls.

Cadence has a several meanings, all of them point towards rhythm or repetition:

  1. Rhythmic flow of a sequence of sounds or words:the cadence of language.

  2. (in free verse) A rhythmic pattern that is nonmetrically structured.

  3. The beat, rate, or measure of any rhythmic movement: The chorus line danced in rapid cadence.

  4. The flow or rhythm of events, especially the pattern in which something is experienced:the frenetic cadence of modern life.

  5. A slight falling in pitch of the voice in speaking or reading, as at the end of a declarative sentence.

  6. The general modulation of the voice.

  7. Music. a sequence of notes or chords that indicates the momentary or complete end of a composition, section, phrase, etc.

None of these meanings relate directly to the way it’s used in my world. It’s normally used in a phrase similar to this:

We need a regular cadence for these meetings

Previously we would have used the word schedule, but over the last 12 to 18 months this appears to have been superseded by cadence. I have no idea why we decided to change, but change we have. Perhaps there’s an interesting social experiment that could be created to understand why groups of people change the words that they use.

There’s a couple of terms I’m still struggling with:

  • Cost wire-brushing
  • Bamboo connection point

Any ideas?

Office Speak: "Can you please go on mute" – "PLEASE GO ON MUTE"

I’ve heard these terms at least 10 times today and most of them were on one call.

You’ll recognise this term if you have ever been on a multi-party conference call. For those of you who don’t have the daily joy of the teleconference experience this is how it works. An invitation is sent out to a group of people, this invitation includes a phone number (often a set of phone numbers for different countries) and a PIN code. When you dial the number at the defined time you get asked for the PIN, having entered the PIN, you get connected with everyone else who has been invited. It’s just like a telephone call with lots of people and normally everyone in the call joins as a participant and can talk.

On one of today’s call there were at least 150 people and the normal etiquette in this situation is that you join, introduce yourself, and then put yourself on mute.

Putting yourself on mute requires one of two different actions. Most phones, both mobile and desktop, have a mute function. My desk phone, as an example, has a button that says mute which I press. The other option is to mute via the teleconference system which normally requires the pressing two buttons, on the system I normally use it’s * and then 6.

Unfortunately there is nearly always someone who disregards the mute etiquette. It’s also normal that this rude person disregarding the etiquette is sat in a noisy room and not listening to the call. This results in an experience which is similar to 150 people huddled around trying to hear what one of them is saying while congregated on a railway platform during the morning rush hour.

This is where the Office Speak of the day comes in: “Can you please go on mute.”

Closely followed by, even louder: “PLEASE GO ON MUTE”

The meaning of today’s Office Speak is quite straightforward – it means can you please go on mute. It’s not a metaphor, or a buzzword, it means what it says.

At least 10% of today’s call was taken up with various requests and demands for people to mute their phones. That’s 150 people for whom 10 minutes has been blasted into history with no useful outcome other than the normal results of increased stress.

Most of the time this is a fruitless exercise because the noisy person isn’t listening to the call anyway (No, I have no idea why these people join calls like this, but they do). Sometimes the noisy person thinks that they are on mute already, but because there are limited visual clues it’s not easy to tell. I have no empirical evidence for it but I suspect that rudeness is the more normal reason.

Most of the conference call systems have a mechanism for the chair person to mute all the lines, but few people bother to learn how to do this. Many of the modern conference call systems have an on-line system where you can see who the noisy people are and mute them, but even fewer people use that capability. People would rather use the tried, trusted and ultimately futile method:

“Can you please go on mute.”


Office Speak: 110% – One hundred AND ten percent!

Take an apple and split it down the middle. On one side you have 50%, on the other side you have 50%. Put them back together and you have 100%.

Now go into the office and you’ll enter into a world with a different reality. In this world when you add everything together you get and extra 10%, you get 110%. I have no idea where this extra 10% comes from, but it’s made its way in somewhere:

We need to give this project 110%

Give me 110% on this activity

I’ve never heard 100% being used in the office, so it clearly doesn’t exist any more.

There are some people who live in yet another reality, in their world they get an extra 100%, in their reality they get 200% .

I’m giving this task 200%

Wow, 200%!

(This reality distortion also happens in sports field and arenas).

You could call me a quantitative pedant and point out that 110% (and 200%) is possible if you pick the right baseline. If 100% is the normal amount of effort that you might be expected to give, then 110% is a bit more than that baseline. If that were the case why would you bother asking for 110%. If the normal baseline was 100%, asking for 110% hardly seems worth the effort. How do you calibrate that your extra effort above the normal baseline is only 10% more effort?

Does asking for 110% really make a difference to the amount of effort that someone gives? Have you ever been told to give something 90%, or even 100%?

I can’t help thinking that I’m in a scene from Spinal Tap:

Why don’t you just make 10 louder

Office Speak: There are just so many to choose from

I was wondering how many Office Speak posts I was going to get to write before I ran out of wonderful over-used clichés –  then I saw this video.

Avaya got an advertising agency to ask 300 of its staff what their most, or least, favourite business clichés were. This is the resulting video:

Yes, I think I’ve heard each one of them used in Office Speak.

Josh Bernoff did, however, point out that Avaya might like to go and check it’s own communications before it point the finger at others.

With so many to choose from I suspect I could be writing these posts for some time.