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.
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:
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?
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: