Management Writing FAIL

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Modelling Business Decisions and their Consequences

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The other day I made the mistake of surfing over to a popular search engine/ news web site' business page, and read an article about the dangers of using some of the trendy clichés that have become prevalent in the vernacular of the modern office. As with virtually all of the articles that deal with cliché usage, this one admonished readers to avoid them, but not because their usage may lead to misunderstandings, and not because their usage is a clear indicator of lazy or fuzzy thinking. No, this article wanted people to avoid using trendy techno-managerial clichés because – wait for it! – you might not come off well in a job interview.

I have a couple of problems with this, and they both point to a troubling trend in articles that are putatively about how to manage better. My first problem is with the original subject line of the piece. From a writer’s point of view, taking on excessive cliché usage is (ironically) in and of itself a cliché.  But, for all the nose-upturning towards the linguistic hoi polloi out there repeating pat phrases ad nauseum, the simple fact of the matter is that clichés can convey specific meanings, often in ways far more efficient than their more verbose, complete cousins. They only become useless (and then straight on to highly irksome) when overuse leads to the blurring of their original reference or meaning.

Take (as this writer did) “It is what it is.” Bill O’Reilly himself sneered at this phrase, on his top-rated cable news analysis show, no less. Consider what I believe to be the more complete definition of this phrase:

The (person, concept, asset, thing) we are discussing is not changing, and, if we are counting on it doing so, then we will fail. We had better evaluate our future alternatives in light of this unchanging parameter.

Hmmmm. Five words versus thirty-seven. If for no other reason than sheer expediency, one would believe that “It is what it is” would not receive such sneering condemnation. Now, I must admit that one of my friends, a brilliant and capable project manager, tends to use this phrase often. The problem with this fellow is that, genius that he is, he was raised on a farm/ranch in Oklahoma, and he has this Oklahoma accent going that makes him sound like he fell off of the grunion truck yesterday (you thought I was going to say “turnip truck,” didn’t you? Well, I can’t, because that would be a cliché, and might anger certain business writers!). I and some of his other friends recommended he use the Latin version, Id eccum id ecca, in an attempt to sound more sophisticated. Alas, not even Latin spoken in an Oklahoman accent sounds sophisticated.

Another undeserving target is the phrase “going (gone) viral.” Allow me to take another stab at this phrase’s more complete meaning:

The (person, concept, asset, thing) we are discussing has received more exposure, attention, and acceptance than anyone could have expected beforehand, based on its relative merits. It is now so common as to be nearly ubiquitous.

An even more complete description of the phrase would have to include a brief discussion of Metcalfe’s Law. As I discuss in my recently-release, must-have book Game Theory in Management (Gower Publishing, 2012), Metcalfe’s Law deals with a characteristic of networks also known as the Butterfly Effect. In essence, Metcalfe’s Law posits that the power of networks grows exponentially as the number of connections between its nodes increases, but this also increases the network’s vulnerability to cascading events, or episodes of small changes to a limited number of network nodes leading to large, or even catastrophic impacts to large segments of the network removed from the initially small changes. The “viral” in the phrase “going viral” refers, of course, to a disease organism, which can potentially be transmitted to a large population through very few initial carriers. But using the dreaded cliché “going (gone) viral” negates the need for the discussion contained in the entire preceding paragraph. People who have no idea of any aspect of network theory, much less Metcalfe’s Law, know in an instant what is being communicated when that phrase is invoked.

Which brings me to my heartburn with the ultimate point of the original article, the idea that, if you don’t do as the writer recommends, you will somehow suffer in a job interview. Many articles have been published around this theme, mostly along the lines of Human Resource directors spilling their deeply-held secrets about who does or does not get job offers. These sub-rosa decision criterion almost always turn on what most would consider trivial aspects of the candidate’s resume, dress, or demeanor. It should go without saying that focusing on such trivial aspects of employment candidates, instead of their capacity to generate or protect more wealth than their salaries, dooms the organizations these HR geniuses work for to an inevitable, but well-dressed, demise, clichés and all. From a business writer’s point of view, it’s a cop-out. It’s a defense of an arbitrary and capricious practice, based on nothing that could remotely pass for “management science,” but dressed up in such a way as to present as helpful information for the reader. Yeah, showing up for an interview and using clichés might come off poorly – so does being overly verbose while answering direct questions, and the selection of linguistic approach depends on the circumstances.

So, yeah, managers and projects fail. So do business writers.

Posted on: December 02, 2012 06:36 PM | Permalink

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