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.

Office Speak: One Throat to Choke

A colleague used this phrase today followed by another colleague saying they had never heard it before. I was surprise because I’ve heard it used on many occasions, but that it doesn’t mean that I like it.

The phrase probably dates from the mid-1990’s but it’s not that widely used so it’s not easy to tell, Google Ngram shows 1990’s anyway.

For those of you who haven’t worked out what it means, this phrase is normally used in a business relationships. Business relationships can become complicated by multiple parties being in the interactions. What can then happen when there is a problem is that everyone looks to everyone else to resolve the issue. Simplifying a network of relationships into a single supplier can make problem resolution easier by giving an organisation one throat to choke, that’s the way the theory goes anyway.

IT has used this phrase a lot because most IT implementations involve many organisations; one organisation provides the network, another the storage, yet another the system software and someone different the application, someone else provides support and yet another organisation provides security software. That’s where an outsourcing organisation comes in and says “we’ll do that integration for you and you’ll have one throat to choke.

It sounds like a logical thing to do, but it comes with problems. Those problems have led many organisations to move away from this single-source model towards one where they use multiple-sources that they manage directly. I don’t want to get into what all of those issues are here, but it’s interesting to see a popular phrase from the mid-1990’s characterising a popular approach from that time being out of fashion some 20 years later. It’s not just the IT industry that has been through that change.

Having one throat to choke has always seemed to me like a very negative way of viewing it. The opposite of this phrase is having all of your eggs in one basket which is far more popular and it’s probably far more likely to be relevant.

Office Speak: Think outside the box

Today’s Office Speak appears on most buzzword lists that I’ve seen and rightly so.

At some point in the early 1990’s someone somewhere hit upon this phrase and it suddenly became popular. This is the Google Ngram viewpoint:

Before then none of us were aware that there was a box that we needed to think ourselves outside of.

According to Wikipedia the birth of this phrase was, in part, linked to the semi-famous nine-dots puzzle. The aim of the puzzle is to join together a matrix of nine-dots using four straight continuous lines. Most people struggle with the problem because they constrain themselves to drawing lines within the matrix, the answer involves drawing lines that extend beyond the matrix. In other words, the answer lies in thinking “outside the box”.

I quite like the idea that this phrase, much loved by workshop facilitators, had a basis in an interesting puzzle, but I suspect that most people who use it have no idea about it’s existence. I didn’t know until I did a bit of research and the image I had was more of a physical box.

Whilst the heritage of the phrase may be interesting it’s use in day-to-day business should be strongly discouraged. If you are a lover of these words I recommend that you stop using it and this is why:

  • It’s become noise to most people. They aren’t hearing what you’ve just said.
  • To some people it’s highly annoying.
  • Isn’t it just as easy to say: “can we do something creative”.

At the end of the day I’m still with Malcolm Gladwell:

“If everyone has to think outside the box, maybe it is the box that needs fixing.”

I’ll leave the final words to Dilbert:

Office Speak: "Sharpen Your Pencil"

I’ve decided that it’s time to call out some of the Office Speak that I hear every day, and thought I would start with this one:

You need to sharpen your pencil

The context for this phrase is almost exclusively negotiations. It’s normally used as a way of saying that the cost of something needs to be reduced.

I suspect that the history of the phrase has got something to do with people going back to look at a set of costs trying to decide which ones are reduced or removed. Traditionally you’d do that with a pencil, or pen and a pencil.

In these days of spreadsheets the phrase seems a bit outdated and increasingly irrelevant, yet it’s use seems to be blossoming. This phrase is not unique in Office Speak in this regard – does anyone know why it’s a benchmark?

The use of phrases like this fascinate me. It’s clearly just as easy to say “reduce your price” as it is to say “sharpen your pencil” so it’s use has got nothing to do with creating a shorthand. I suspect that continued use has more to do with the emotional response of painting a picture; “Sharpen your pencil” sounds more dramatic than “reduce your price”.

What’s your emotional response to this phrase?

Office Speak and Buzzword Density

A few things came together the other day:

I was looking at some of the statistics on this site and found that a post I created back in 2009 on Buzzword Density had recently become popular again. This post contains a cartoon that goes like this: “Mashups are SOA in the Cloud” – “3 out of 6 not bad”. It made me smile to realise that two of the buzzwords in this illustration had lived there life and were now mostly superseded by other terms.

This was followed by an email in which there was a sentence that had 32 words in it which is a problem in its own right but 13 of the words were buzzword. In a Gunning Fog Index this sentence scores 23 (for reading by a wide audience you’d normally aim for an index of less than 12, and less than 8 for universal reading).

In my normal reading I came across this article in the Atlantic: The Origins of Office Speak subtitled What corporate buzzwords reveal about the history of work (and what a corporate-buzzword quiz reveals about you).

The article starts by highlighting the famous Dilbert Buzzword Bingo cartoon from 1994.

According to this article there are a number of classification of buzzwords that have grown up through our history since the war and the influence of different groups:

  • The Self Actualizers
  • The Optimisers
  • The Financiers
  • The Marketers
  • The Disruptors
  • The Creatives
  • The Life Hackers

It’s interesting to see the history behind some of the phrases that we take as axiomatic.

Like most people I know I have had a love-hate relationship with buzzwords and office speak for most of my working life. The Atlantic article concludes like this:

But this seems to be the irony of office speak: Everyone makes fun of it, but managers love it, companies depend on it, and regular people willingly absorb it. As Nunberg said, “You can get people to think it’s nonsense at the same time that you buy into it.” In a workplace that’s fundamentally indifferent to your life and its meaning, office speak can help you figure out how you relate to your work—and how your work defines who you are.

I’m off now to sync-up in a disruptively agile way as part of a scrum of innovative thought leading passionate entrepreneurs, circling back and downloading so we can drill down and mind-meld about an ideation event looking for low-hanging-fruit (Gunning Fog index = 22).

It’s not just in offices where cliché becomes a problem though:

%d bloggers like this: