Daniel Stevens

Mar 18, 2017

7 min read

Hated business terms — let’s fix some

Do not take this post too seriously, I sure didn’t. It’s quickly written, poorly edited (I overuse italic, bold, and parenthesis), has a couple uses of mild profanity, and I confess that openly. I’ve added a little team communications advice sprinkled in with the potential changes as a bonus.

Yes, this is also a cross-posting from my LinkedIn blog, sin admitted.

Recently, I read one of what must be hundreds of blogs about business terms like “ping me” or the dreaded “think outside the box” (even I hate that one). Like so many of them, it offered only the polemic “I hate these” statement. It’s funny how many thousands of people piled on. So, clearly, there’s a problem.

We have developed these communication shortcuts over time as a means of reducing complexity. True, we’ve likely gone too far in this direction. I think it’s important to remember how all these came into being and why they are so hard to change.

That’s why I always find these lists unhelpful because they describe a problem but offer no solution. The simple retort is to say “use plain language and avoid idioms.” And that is a good idea, especially when you work in a globally distributed company or team. But it doesn’t really address what the thousands we’re complaining about.

So, I’m going to take a crack at it. In fact “take a crack at it” is one of them so let’s start there:

  • Take a crack at it = I’m going to try solving this problem.

Pretty straightforward, just use simple language rather than an idiom.

  • Ping me = Talk to me later. Send me an email about X. Can you talk to me about this later on the chat app of your choice?

Now, this one is one of the shortcuts which generally has a technical component. You wouldn’t think of “pinging” someone with a physical letter or a phone call.

  • Think outside the box *even I hate this one* = Okay, that’s a start, but let’s try… (and then give an actual WAY of thinking differently for crying out loud)
  • At the end of the day = I’m not sure this matters, we’ve already done x or y and we should give that some time to work. (This one is tricky because it can mean something doesn’t matter, or that you have no power to impact change: “At the end of the day I’m not sure what I do matters” “At the end of the day the market will decide” yeah yeah “market will decide” I’m not going to address everything, okay.) We have to wait and see what happens, we’ve done our best and now it’s out of our hands. (see what I mean “out of our hands”) … now we have no power to control the outcome <<do you really want people to say that? Perhaps.
  • Back to the drawing board = Okay, that didn’t really work, let’s start over. (personally, I’d follow that up with “Out of what we tried, what worked and what didn’t” because there’s rarely something which was completely &*%%ed)
  • Hit the ground running & Get the ball rolling = Let’s do X to get a lot of ideas in today’s session. (I did these together because, well, they’re almost exactly the same) Another approach might be “We have a problem, and not much time…” then describe the problem in the simplest terms possible and start working toward a solution.
  • Low hanging fruit = What are the things we know (are good, bad, easier to solve, we already have a solution for…)
  • Thrown under the bus = It was wrong to put the blame on X we should all take responsibility for Y. (because it’s almost always the case when you use that phrase that your talking about one person or team being blamed for the actions which were the result of a whole system failing)
  • Let’s touch base = I’d like to meet with you later. (alternatives: I really miss talking with you can we meet x or y. Or, when it’s more serious: We need to talk about x can you meet me y.)
  • Get my manager’s blessing = I’m not sure I can do X till I talk to Y. I’m glad I now work in a culture where I’ve not heard this in a long time. This is another one I really hate. If anyone on my team is reading this and he or she have ever used this phrase please talk to me about why.
  • It’s on my radar = I know this is coming. Alternatives: Yes I’m aware of X and I have a plan to address it (but only if you actually do have a plan if you don’t, be honest and say …aware of x, but I’m not sure how I/we are going to handle it yet …)
  • I don’t have the bandwidth. There’s too much on my plate = Right now I really can’t do that, can it wait? If you must explain, or if it’s critical work, be simple and specific: can you check with Y or talk to me in X when I have more time or finish project A. You might also talk about what priority this has because sometimes even when we have too much work or need to focus something might be so broken it really should have your attention. This can be especially true if you’re seen as a high-level expert because people know you’re busy and they might actually be afraid to tell you how important something is. So empower them, but have the confidence to say no. This is one shortcut that can actually do real damage if people are afraid to approach you with priority.
  • Synergy (barf, lol) = We work well together. Our team is really kicking ass. Last month we really did amazing work together, I think this team is really kicking ass. There are so many better, and more meaningful, ways to say that than synergy.
  • Move the goal post = I think we can do better. Our competition released something that does this better and that means we’re going to have to think about our solution and see how we can improve. (oh man this one was so hard not to use “rethink our situation” “step it up a notch” “get back in the game” lol, you get the idea.)
  • Apples to apples = This is almost exactly like Y. What you are saying is so similar to X it’s almost the same thing. You think project X is just like project A but really it’s no because… (this one can go two ways, you’re generally either talking about a bad comparison or the lack of a comparison)
  • Win-win (barf again) = I think this will help both our teams. I think this will help everyone. I don’t know, this seems like something we should just do. If we do X our team will improve and our customers will benefit. I took a vacation, I feel better and my work improved. This one is annoying to me because it really is a shortcut which lacks context and meaning, so give it both in simple language.
  • Circle back around = Let’s come back to this later. This can wait, we’ll talk about it on/during/as a part of X or Y. That’s a good idea, put it on our calendar to talk about it in a few (days, weeks, months) If it’s months, is it relly a good idea, or are you just delaying because you want to kill someone’s idea but don’t want to hurt their feelings. If that’s the case, better to have the conversation in days because they are going to be thinking about it over months, and they think you’re really open to it. It’s a devastating communication mistake, DON’T make it and you’re team will be healthier.
  • All hands on deck = This is really critical and we need everyone to help solve this problem. Then be specific about which teams and people need to do what. Communicate to your leaders, in very specific terms, what their teams need to do and who they need to do it with. If you don’t follow this up you’re fu@#*ng your teams and yourself.
  • Take this offline = I’m going to stop you there, let’s talk about that later and move on. (depending on the person, team, or situation you might consider adding “I think that’s a good point but I’m going to stop….)
  • Drill-down = Let’s talk more about the details of X so I can understand Y better.

Here’s the last one, I’ve added a good bit of commentary because I’ve really seen this last one hurt people when done without thought and good leadership.

  • Elephant in the room = *take a deep breath, no seriously take a deep breath* Okay, we’re not really addressing the problem, we need to talk about Y even though I know everyone’s avoiding it. I know it’s hard to talk about Y, but if we want to improve we have to, so I’ll start.

This takes real courage and if you have good leadership the leader should be the one who makes it okay to start the discussion. If you don’t, and far too many don’t, do a quick assessment, take a deep breath (it really does help), and step into the fray. You will grow from the experience. Usually, everyone else on the team will be glad you spoke up. That said, there can be very real risk associated with this and we shouldn’t say otherwise because then we’d be “avoiding the elephant in the room” lol. No, seriously, this one can get you fired or ostracized in some dysfunctional companies. If that’s the case where you work I honestly suggest brushing up your resume and looking elsewhere if that’s an option for you. Because the place you’re working is fu@#$d and is probably not going to function well over time.

So, there are hundreds more, but I’ve just been sitting on the couch on a rainy Saturday morning and life is about way more than a silly LinkedIn blog. So I’m going to head out into the wide world and I hope you all do the same.

Be well my friends, and remember simple, honest, human communication isn’t as simple as you think but it’s well worth the effort. And the risk.

— Dan