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New developments in managerese — how to speak like your boss's boss

If you say "The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment," you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin "I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out," you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think.

-- GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

All professional groups have a language that is shared amongst practitioners, and that is more or less impentrable to outsiders. Managers are no different, and their dialect, which is often referred to as 'managerese' or 'corporatese', serves the same purpose for their profession as the jargons of engineering, law, and medicine do for theirs.
       Managerese is different from other jargon-rich dialects, however, in a number of ways. First, and most striking, is the relative paucity of vocabulary. Medical jargon recognizes at least 20 ways of saying 'lump' ('growth', 'tumour', 'swelling', 'macule', 'papule'...); mathematics has about 20 ways of saying 'work out' ('calculate', 'determine', 'prove', 'estimate'...). In managerese, however, it is quite common to find a 2,000 word document in which 20% of the words are drawn from the same pool of 20 words. A few words like 'solution', 'focus', 'core', and 'seamless' may account for most of the content. The second, related, difference is that managerese words have very imprecise meanings, and can easily be used over and over again in slightly different contexts. Consider how many ways in which the word 'solution' is used. Now consider, in contrast, the words 'macule' and 'papule' in the jargon of dermatology. Both may just be 'lumps' to you and me, but there is a world of difference in diagnosis. In other words, most jargon words are more specific than their plain English equivalents, but managerese words are less specific. Third, managerese is ideally suited to making unquantifiable value judgements. This is partly as a result of the imprecision of the words themselves, but also of the way in which they are used. If I describe something as 'superior' or 'best-of-breed' I haven't really provided any facts, merely an opinion. Therefore, where most jargon is used to reduce the amount of words required to explain a concept that is well-understood by practitioners, managerese is well suited to expanding the number of words required. This is because many managerese terms are so ill-defined that their meanings overlap. It is generally possible to use, say, three words where one would do, but still give the impression that all three words are contributing to the sentence. So, for example, it I say that my company is a 'leader in best-of-breed blended integration solutions for world-class enterprise infrastructure providers'' there are probably only two concepts expressed: (i) it makes computer stuff, and (ii) it does it better than other companies. Each of the words in the managerese statement contributes a little bit to the overall picture. So managerese is not content-free, as cynics claim, it merely expresses its content in a holistic way. The key vocabulary and grammar of managerese has been written about by many different people over some decades. However, the last couple of years has seen a whole new set of interestingly bizarre words and phrases issue forth from the overactive word processors of the managerial classes. I call this recent idiom 'new managerese' to distinguish it from the 'old managerese' we have all had time to adjust to. This article lists some of these new words and phrases, derived from a sifting of my in-box over the last year or so, with translations into plain English wherever possible. I hope you find it helpful.
       Please send comments, criticisms, etc., to me, Kevin Boone (contact details).

24-7 All the time. ''After our learning experience on Project Bloater, we have prioritized the transition to a 24-7 support infrastructure'' — since Project Bloater sank like a stone, we must concentrate our efforts on putting in place computer stuff that will keep on working.

80-20 rule This phrase has a long pedigree; originally it reflected the finding that across the whole spectrum of human endeavour, 80% of X was associated with 20% of Y. There is probably some mathematical reason for this. Thus: We get 80% of the results in 20% of the time, or 80% of the work is done by 20% of the staff, or even ''80% of the world's wealth is created by 20% of the population''. More recently, however, the phrase has become used rather laconically way to write off failures: ''Project Blister has become the latest victim of the 80-20 rule'' - we screwed it up.

aligned Our strategy is aligned across all product groups — we do things in the same way as the rest of the company. Similar meaning to engaged, except that 'aligned' gives the impression of relating to long-term planning, while 'engaged' suggests day-to-day bickering.

addressable Bizarre synonym for 'accessible' or, perhaps, 'available'. ''Anticlockwise widgetizers are not an addressable market for us; there are too many other people playing in the same space'' — we won't be able to trade successfully in this product range because there's too much competition already.

associate In new managerese, one should not refer to the company's staff as employees, but as 'associates'. Associates have a certain dignity that employees lack. Pay and conditions remain the same, of course. Also, while employees have rights that are protected by law, associates only have obligations.

bandwidth 'Bandwidth' is a term from communications theory that even computer engineers don't usually understand (they think they do, but they don't, because to do so requires an understanding of Shannon's law and the geometry of N-dimensional hyperspheres). So in managerese, as you can imagine, this precise term has become very vague, and now simply means 'capacity' or 'resources'. We don't have the bandwidth to accomodate your issues — we don't have the time or resources to deal with the problem you've identified.

best-in-class See best-of-breed.

best-of-breed We commodify best-of-breed infrastructure installations — we sell computer stuff that is better than other people's. The problem with this term, of course, is that no-one is going to claim to sell 'worst-of-breed' or 'second-best-of-breed' stuff.

blended We offer a range of blended solutions. — we sell things that are made up of bits taken from other products.

bottom line The term 'bottom line' has been used for many years to mean final results, or the overall financial position. In new managerese, the 'bottom line' need not be financial or even a number, it is just a vague term meaning 'reality'. ''The bottom line is that we must increase market penetration and re-align salaries'' — put bluntly, our success is dependent on selling more stuff and paying lower wages.

bring along To 'bring someone along' is to present an unpalatable proposal in small increments, in the hope that it will be easier to accept. We'll get buy-in if we bring the CEO along — we'll convince the board to accept our unpalatable suggestion if we introduce it to the CEO in pieces small enough that he won't spit his coffee over the carpet.

bring home bring home this critical project — make a success of this important job.

buy in To 'get buy-in' is to persuade people — usually senior people but not always — to accept that your idea is a sound one, and to make a committment to it. We need to get buy-in on our go to market strategy — we need to persuade people that our way of doing business is a good one.

can-do ''We need an individual contributor with a can-do attitude towards challenging scenarios'' — we need a grunt who will get on with frustrating and unpleasant jobs without undue complaint.

change the dynamics If the word 'change' is not elegant enough, you can say 'tranisition'. If 'transistion' is not emphatic enough, you can say 'change the dynamics'. ''This development changes the dynamics of the distribution medium''. See also change the rules.

challenging In new managerese we say 'challenging' rather than 'difficult' or 'troublesome'. 'Challenging' implies that drive and committment will reap rewards; 'difficult' implies that the outcome is out of our control. ''Going forward, we must change the rules to bring our business to the next level in these challenging market conditions'' — We must now make dramatic changes to the way we do business if we are to improve our trading position substantially in these difficult times''. 'Challenging' can also be used as a eumphemism for 'frustrating and unpleasant'.

change the rules A descision or an event that 'changes the rules' is simply one that has a big impact. ''With the launch of the mark III thrungelug extractor, we are changing the rules of the personal thrungebolt space.

collateral Because the plain meaning of the word 'collateral' is not well known, it has been adapted to fit a number of situations where no ordinary word was glamous enough. In new managerese it has acquired an entirely new meaning: a promotional document. I need a leave-behind piece of collateral for the CEO — I need a promotional document to leave with the CEO when I go to see him.

core competencies An organization's 'core competencies' are things that it thinks it can do better than its competitors. We must leverage our core competencies — we must do more of what we are good at.

cross section Probably a combination of 'crossroads' and 'intersection', rather than derived from the mathematical term. ''Our company occupies the cross section between two dynamic markets: nasal hygiene and laser weapons''.

customer-facing People in 'customer-facing roles' are those that interact directly with an organization's customers or clients.

customer base In new managerese, companies don't have customers, they have a customer base. We must critically engage with our customer base — we must do what our customers want.

customer defection ''Our state-of-the-art integrated CRM solution will minimize customer defections'' — our trendy new computer program will stop customers going to our competitors.

dial down In new managerese, projects are not cancelled or put on hold, they are 'dialed down'.

develop Although a key concept in old managerese for some years, the word 'develop' (''we must facilitate the development of our field contacts'') has largely been superceded in new managerse by evolve.

empowerment We facilitate an environment of empowerment — we let you get on with your job. Empowerment is usually assumed to be a positive word in new managerese, but a cynical interpretation is that empowerment means getting to take the blame when things go wrong.

engaged ''We must engage our customer-facing resources with those of other product groups'' — we must encourage our staff who deal with customers to duke it out more frequently with similar staff in other parts of the organization. Similar meaning to aligned, except that 'aligned' gives at least the impression of long-term planning.

evolve ''We must evolve new methodologies to engage with our customer base'' — we must develop new ways to co-operate with our customers. In nature, evolution is now generally believed to operate without the benefit of an overall guiding principle, so the term is an apt one.

exciting These are exciting times for the company — you are all going to be made redundant, except for the handful that will be left to work 23 hours a day.

excecution excellence ''Our focus must be on execution excellence in all our prioritized projects going forward'' — we must focus on making a success of our most important projects.

facilitate Over the years the word 'facilitate' has become popular as a short-hand way of saying 'make easier' or 'provide help'. However, in new managerese the meaning has become very broad, and the word now means 'provide' or 'supply' in a general sense. We facilitate a quality-led sales outlet — we sell things of good quality.

flagship In a naval battle, your flagship is the pride of your navy, the vessel that will strike fear into the hearts of your enemy. It's usually bigger, faster, and more heavily armed than your other ships, and where the top brass will sit sipping their chilled Sancerre at some respectable distance from the battle. It was only natural, therefore, that the term 'flagship' be press-ganged into the service of managerese, to denote an exemplary product. The motor manufacturer BMW, for example, used to refer to the K1200 motorcycle as the 'flagship of our motorcycle range', although I can assure you from personal experience that it does not float at all well. The word flagship has been used thus by business for at least fifty years. However, in new managerese, as is so often the case, the term has become even more debased, and need not even refer to a tanglible object. So, for example, recently I have been informed about flagship events, flagship services, and even flagship meetings. The word 'flagship' now means nothing more than 'important'.

focus The meaning of 'focus' in new managerese is not very different from its day-to-day meaning of 'concentrate', or 'emphasize'. However, it is used much more in new managerese than in plain English. We must focus on the voice of the customer — we must do what the customers like. ''Focus on going forward to the next level'' — concentrate on improving our trading position.

goal Because it has sporting, rather than military, overtones, 'goal' is perceived as a more positive word than the old managerse word 'target'.

go to market A generic term meaning 'do business', or 'work', or 'promote'. ''The CEO will now talk to how we will go to market this fiscal'' — The CEO will now tell you or plans for the year. Incredibly, 'go to market' can be used as a noun as will as a verb. Have we changed our go to market? — are we doing business differently?

going forward In old managerese, 'going forward' could be used in most places where the phrase 'from now on' would otherwise be appropriate. ''Going forward, the outloook is positive'' — things will get better from now on. In new managerese, however, the term has no meaning at all. It's just a bit of syntactic fluff that goes in a sentence.

fiscal Although generally an adjective, in new managerese 'fiscal' is an abbreviation for 'financial year' or, sometimes, just 'year'. We've experienced small margins this fiscal — we didn't make much money this year.

hand off Pass the buck. ''The support department are willing to take ownership of Project Goitre: can we hand it off?'' — it's the support department's turn to take the blame for Project Goitre: can you pass me that shovel so I can load the buck onto the wheelbarrow?

impactful ''We need to engage with the market to be more impactful in the thrungebolt space'' — we need thrungebolt purchasers to notice us before they notice our competitors.

individual contributor A grunt. 'Individual contributor' is a new managerese euphemism for a person with no authority.

incent A strange back-formation of 'incentive'. To 'incent' is to offer an incentive or an inducement. A synonym for incentivise. ''In these exciting times, we must incent each individual contributor to take a can-do attitude'' — we must find a way to encourage our menial employees to stop moaning and get on with the job, even though they're likely to be made redundant.

incentivise See incent.

infrastructure A general term meaning either 'computer stuff' or, perhaps, administrative procedures. ''Do we have the infrastructure to support a scalable 24-7 solution?'' — do we have the computer stuff in place that will support a high level of demand all the time?

intellectual property In new managerese, a company's 'intellectual property' is simply its products. Although the term clearly derives from the legal definition, the meanings aren't quite the same. In its crudest usage, 'intellectual property' can even be a tangible bulk product, like a bag of coal. ''The XYZ department offers a blended consultancy solution to leverage our existing intellectual property'' — the XYZ department makes things from bits of our other products.

issue A problem, or something that will turn into a problem soon.

key We will implement incentives to retain our key associates — we will pay our most valuable employees more money so they don't leave. If 'key' is not emphatic enough, you can use prioritized.

learning experience Catastrophic failure. ''The implementation of Project Skunk was a learning experience for the company'' — we bodged it up badly.

leave-behind A 'leave-behind' is promotional gimmick or glossy document. The derivation of the word, presumably, is from something that you leave behind after a promotional visit. The phrase can be used as a adjective or, amazingly, a noun: ''The marketing department has issued a stack of new leave-behinds'.

leverage In plain English 'leverage' is a noun, something you have by default if you have a big enough lever. In old managerese, it is a verb 'to leverage'. ''We must leverage our existing solution'' — we must take advantage of what we already have. In new managerese, it just means 'use'.

manage expectations Supress enthusiasm. To 'manage expectations', or 'set expectations', is to warn your customer, as quietly and subtly as possible, that the product or service he or she has purchased is not as sturdy/fast/cost-effective/stylish as might reasonably be assumed. ''There are some issues with the product, so we must manage the expectations of our customer base'' — the product has some unresolved problems, so we must prevent the customers becoming two optimistic about it.

mission critical ''We implement mission-critical solutions that change the dynamics of the 24-7 infrastructure space'' — We make computer stuff that needs to keep running all the time, and which would cause frightful inconvenience if it didn't, and we do it better than other people.

metrics Measurements. We must review our customer satisfaction metrics — we must change the way we determine what our customers think of us.

moving forward 'Moving forward' can be used in most places where the phrase 'in the future' would otherwise be appropriate. Moving forward, the outloook is positive — things will be better in the future. Very similar meaning to going forward.

next level To express the idea that things will not only improve, but improve by a very significant amount, you can say that they will be taken to the next level. ''The rollout of our customer-focused set of core competencies will take us to the next level'' — concentrating on things we are better at than our competitors will be very advantageous to us.

on the same page ''I will communicate our go to market strategy so that we are all on the same page'' — I will tell you our business plans so that no-one is in any doubt about what they are.

opportunity Euphemism for a problem, usually a severe one with no obvious solution. ''The company's sub-optimal growth has given us an opportunity''.

orient Can be used transitively (Orient Fred to our strategy) or intransitively (Is he oriented?).

orientated In managerese, this is the preferred past-tense of orientation. Technically, the verb 'to orient' has only one past perfect form: 'oriented'.

outside the box ''The company employs individual contributors who can think outside the box'' — the company employs grunts who have occasional interesting ideas.

ownership To 'take ownership' of something is to assume responsibility for it. ''We encourage all associates to take ownership of the strategy'' — we want all employees to assume some responsibility for the strategy. The term is also used cynically to mean 'take the blame'.

playing in this space ''We can't go to market with a nasal hygiene strategy - there's too many people playing in that space already'' — we can't make nose hair trimmers, as there's too much competition from other companies.

position We will position the product at the low end of the market — we will try to sell the product to people who don't want to spend much money.

prioritized In new managerese, our most important obligations are not 'high priority', they are 'prioritized'. Focus on our prioritized customer base — focus on our most important customers.

process In new managerese the word process means much the same as it does in plain English; the real difference is the frequency with which it is used. We must focus on process — we must review whether we are doing business in an efficient way. ''We must implement a process to engage with our customer base'' — we must put in place a scheme for communicating with our customers. Increasingly, 'process' is used cynically to mean a bizarre procedure which makes everybody's work more difficult and confers no benefit. ''Why do I need to draw my flowcharts in wax crayon? Because we have a process''.

ramping We are ramping for a release next fiscal — we are getting ready for a release next year.

raising the bar This phrase means 'making things more difficult for the competition' is a vague sort of way. Presumably it derives from the sports of high-jump, or pole vaulting, in which the is raised between rounds, and the less talented competitors drop out. We are raising the bar in the thrungebolt game — we are making it more difficult for other thrungebolt manufacturers to compete with us.

re-align salaries ''To remain profitable, we must re-align salaries to the market average'' — we must ensure that we don't pay better wages than other firms.

reduction in force The polite way of talking about a large scale programme of redundancies. ''But going forward, we do not expect a reduction in force in the current fiscal''.

rebound If something has got worse, when it gets better it 'rebounds'. ''If the stock price does not rebound to the anticipated level, a reduction in force may be eventuated'' — if the stock price does not return to the expected level, a lot of you will soon be seeking work elsewhere.

reset expectations ''We will reset industry expectations of how a microprocessor-controlled fly swatter should perform'' — we will demonstrate that our product performs better than anyone would previously have thought possible. 'Reset expectations' could be used in the same, vaguely exculpatory way as set expectations, but in practice seems to be used mostly in positive messages about the business. See also raising the bar.

resource-constrained Short of money, time, and staff. ''We have challenging goals in a resource-constrained operational space'' — it will be difficult to meet our targets when we are so short of money, time, and staff.

return on investment I have so far never come across a business communication in which the phrase 'return on investment' could not simply be replaced by 'profit'. I'm not an economist, of course, and most likely there is some subtle technical difference. But inasmuch as 'return on investment' is the amount by which your earnings exceed the amount you spend, it has to mean more-or-less the same as profit. The problem, I suppose, is that 'profit' has a rather grubby sound, while 'investment' sounds worthy and upstanding.

right questions Questions that need answers, with the answers unlikely to be forthcoming. ''How did your interface with VP go? He asked all the right questions.'' — how did your meeting with the VP go? He asked a lot of questions that I ought to have been able to answer, but couldn't.

riffed This term has now replaced the ubiquitous 'downsized' in many organizations. To 'rif' someone is to deem his post redundant. From reduction in force.

seamless In general, most organizational changes can be expressed as 'seamless' if they are a success. For example: ''the transition to a bought service model was seamless''.

set expectations See manage expectations.

slowdown Euphemism for recession. ''If we can't compensate for the current slowdown by prioritizing our mission critical projects, we will have to consider a reduction in force'' — if we can't save money during this recession by cutting spending on all our less high-profile activities, some of you will be fired.

solution In new managerese, you don't need a problem to have a solution. The term is a generic one meaning 'thingie', and is used where the target is too vague to allow of a precise word. For example, We need an infrastructure server solution — we need something that has a computer in it.

sound byte The jargon term 'sound bite', meaning a message condensed into a snappy phrase, has been widely used for at least thirty years. Recently, however, press officers in the computing industry have started using the term 'sound byte' without obvious embarassment. Presumably it means the same thing.

space A general term for a field of operations, or the things in which we are interested, or our share of the market. the personal computer space — the market for personal computers. See, in particular, playing in this space.

synergy ''We need to partner with an company that will create synergy'' — we need to work with a firm that will allow our joint efforts to increase productivity for both of us''. In new managerese this has given us the verb 'to synergize', which means, essentially, to collaborate.

stick to our knitting Slang way of saying ''prioritize our core competencies.

synchronise diaries I'll ask Fred to synchronize diaries with Mary — I'll ask Fred and Mary to meet at a mutually convenient time.

talk to In new managerese, one doesn't talk about something, one 'talks to' it. The CFO will now talk to the quarterly sales results.

team In new managerese, it is conventional to refer to the staff who report to you as a 'team'. ''Fred's team strategises the transition to a customer-facing go to market. The term is also used in a vague, valedictory way, in internal publicity material — Well done team!

transition 'Transisition' is the preferred new managerese for the plain English word 'change'. Managers do not change, they transition. The word can be used as a noun: during this transition, or as a verb we are transitioning our strategy.

value-add A 'value-add' need not be financial. In new managerese, any benefit can be a value-add. ''Enhanced responsiveness to the voice of the customer is a value-add for the company'' — the company will benefit by responding more diligently to the needs of our customers.

upside We anticpate significant upside next fiscal — we think things will be better next year.

value proposition Value propositions are big business at the moment. Many firms spend a great deal of time and effort on crafting a suitable value proposition — some statement summarising the company's way of doing business and which, it hopes, sets it apart from the competition. Examining the value propositions of real companies is a good way to mine a rich vein of managese. After all, in a capitalist society any half-decent business will have a value proposition which reduces to We make products/services that people want to buy. Since we can't all have that as a value proposition, we might say something like ''We make best-in-class blended solutions which help our customers maximize their return on investment, or something like that. As well as the value proposition being a shining example of managese in use, the term 'value proposition' itself is frequently used in other managerese statements: ''We are successful because our unique value proposition resonates with potential customers'' — we are successful because customers trust us and like the way we do business. The chances of your customers actually knowing what your corporate value proposition says are vanishingly small.

voice of the customer ''We need to focus our go to market on the voice of the customer'' — we need to do business in a way that our customers will appreciate.

Copyright © 1994-2013 Kevin Boone. Updated May 13 2010