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Words and Phrases I’m Sick Of

I see and hear these words and phrases all the time, but it has gotten to the point where they’ve lost their meaning for me — maybe for you as well. Let’s start with some oldies but goodies then work up to something more current.

This used to be the consultant’s ultimate goal. Synergy is a type of magic: it’s creating something from nothing. Or to be more accurate, it’s creating something new out of two old things. Let’s say you have a company and it’s worth $x, and I have a company and it’s worth $y. Using synergy, our two companies together are worth more than $x + $y. That’s the theory anyway.

But wait a minute. Wasn’t there a benefit from two companies working together before the word synergy was invented? What about old phrases like “horizontal integration” and “vertical integration”? Weren’t they about synergy? Sort of. Most people tend to use horizontal and vertical integration as words related to an acquisition — one company actually buys another. What’s different today is that companies are more likely to try to partner with one another without M&A being discussed.

So synergy is like the polite way to do vertical or horizontal integration without all of the nasty complications associated with M&A. It’s like “friends with benefits” instead of marriage.  You can play together without the long-term commitment.

Paradigm Shift
The phrase was first used by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn was describing a fundamental change in basic assumptions: something so significant that it created a whole new paradigm. Since then the phrase has grown so common that it has been used in marketing almost any kind of new product.

“Paradigm shift” is now used like any other set of magic words. We wave our magic wand and — presto chango paradigm shift — we see this remarkable result. My rule of thumb: be suspicious of anything using the phrase.  It’s probably a variation on the same old paradigm you’re used to.

Perfect Storm
The phrase came from Sebastian Junger’s 1997 book, The Perfect Storm, and was popularized by the the 2000 movie of the same name. It refers to a combination of weather coincidences which come together (using synergy, I guess) to create a storm of much higher magnitude than is typically seen. It’s like the paradigm shift of storms — everything is on a much higher level: winds, water, waves, general devastation.

I first heard “perfect storm” used in a non-weather context when I attended the Gartner Symposium in 2000. Gartner used it to describe a remarkable confluence of economic and social factors which had created an ideal environment for Information Technology progress, jobs and business influence. Not quite a year later on September 11, 2001, that ideal environment ended.

These days I’ve heard the phrase used to describe the economy. But let’s face it — it only took bad mortgages and widespread sale of mortgage derivatives to trigger our latest economic reversal, and mass panic took care of the rest. Our current economic climate isn’t anywhere near as bad as any perfect storm situation I could envision. So let’s stop exaggerating.

This is a euphemism, pure and simple. We say downsizing when we want to depersonalize the act of firing people. Yes, we may have an economic motivation for takings jobs away from these people, but in a lot of cases the economy is just used as an excuse for getting rid of people we wanted to get rid of anyway.

I understand the need for using euphemisms — I really do. I know that it’s easier to explain things to employees using this word, and this sort of explanation makes it easier for employees to accept their fate. But that doesn’t make it right.

There are worse words. “Rightsizing” is much worse — it implies an ethical basis for firing. I also dislike “force shaping” which seems to compare the whole process to a haircut — “we’ll just take a little off the top.” “Work force reduction” seems like a better phrase — at least it states a fact: the work force is being reduced.

There are economic definitions of this word (see Wikipedia), but I’m more concerned about the emotional content of the word. While not as bad as the word “depression,” recession is a word that makes people afraid. I’ve said in a previous article that the biggest key to economic recovery is optimism. With an optimistic attitude, people will buy things they need and want, and the economy will flourish. So if you’re using the words recession and depression a lot, please stop. You’re screwing things up for the rest of us. Be optimistic instead, and let’s get the economy back on track.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Bryan Schueler June 5, 2009, 2:31 pm

    I couldn’t agree more Harwell, and these belong in the 2009 edition of Buzzword Bingo! What really makes my skin crawl is when a person uses these terms in an odd context, obviously not understanding what they mean.

    And your recession point is great too. I certainly do what I can to keep things constructive, a sort of “glass half full.” 😉

    • Harwell June 5, 2009, 3:54 pm

      Thanks, Bryan. Your comments are always appreciated.

  • John F June 5, 2009, 7:07 pm

    Are you really still hearing these tired old classics? Most of those are so 1990. It’s all about “verbification” now.

    “Can you effort that for me?”
    “We are currently in the ideation phase of the project.”
    “I’m Actioning my deliverables.”
    “Let’s blue-sky the design for the new software.”

    • Harwell June 6, 2009, 8:39 am

      Thanks for your comment. I guess I hang out with a different group of people. 🙂
      Many of the recent uses I’ve seen of these “classics” have been in print articles in publications like BusinessWeek and the WSJ. Maybe they’re on the trailing edge of the buzzword curve.

  • Robert Merrill July 14, 2009, 11:49 pm

    How about “resource” when it’s obvious you mean a particular person?

    “The schedule slipped a couple of days because our web-design resource was ill.”

    “Once you’ve signed the Statement of Work, I’ll concrete the resources to the calendar.”

    Both actual quotes.

    I guess it’s easier to rightsize resources than people in order to regain synergy when the recession turns into a paradigm-changing perfect storm. It isn’t as though resources have feelings or families or souls or anything.

    • Harwell July 15, 2009, 6:59 am

      Thanks for your comment, Robert. I love your last paragraph.

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