This Week's Words

by Graham Email

More insighful phrases from "Fad Surfing In The Boardroom":

Benchmarking 1. Comparison of operations against best-in-class; a superb way to spark new ideas and significant insights when the examples are selected with thought and imagination
2. The basis for great jobs in which the incumbents have no substantive responsibilities other than to gallivant around the world, meet all sorts of interesting people, make occasional proclamations about all of the neat things other corporations do, and then submit appropriately lavish expense reports.

Black Hole A massive object in space, predicted by the General Theory of Relativity, into which things fall but from which nothing, not even light, can escape. Frequent destination of employee ideas, customer complaints, and supplier suggestions.

CLM Acronym for "career limiting move"; phrase used by senior managers in corporations when asked to share their views about the corporation's strategy with their bosses; as future events show, their views may be correct, as is their assessment of the risk of sharing those views.

CTM Acronym for "career terminating move". See also CLM. The price of total candour in a dysfunctionally defensive corporate culture.

Corporate Culture 1. The way we do things around here; our combination of shared values and group norms
2. An excuse for not making desperately needed changes in the way a company conducts its business.

Due consideration What businesspeople do to postpone making tough decisions (when three-year olds do this to postpone bedtime, it's called "stalling")

Strategy+Business interview with Daniel Yankelovich

by Graham Email


Good interview with Daniel Yankelovich in this month's strategy+business magazine (the commercial Booz Allen Hamilton publication). Here are some of the highlights from the first part of the interview (you need to register to read the whole article, but it is available online):

Our firm does an annual study of public attitudes in the US. We asked "can you trust businesspeople to do the right thing most all of the time?". In 2002, 36 percent of those polled said Yes. In 2005 it's 31 percent. The last time we saw lows like that was in the 1970's.

When people can rationalize their work as positive and ethical, they can do the most unscrupulous things while feeling honorable about them. I'm always appalled at how unethical university officials can be. They believe that "we are good people, therefore by definition, everything we do is good". And then they do things that would make "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap blush with shame. Similarly, when "shareholder value" became a quasi-ethical rationale for self-enrichment and cheating in the 1990's, that gave businesspeople who took part in this a feeling of self-justification.

In general, loyalty to customers and employees is now perceived as a one-way street. Companies are perceived as demanding loyalty, but they then outsource jobs, leave towns, and lay people off even when the company is doing well. Citizens and consumers have come to see these practices as meaning that the company doesn't give a damn about either customers or employees.

Only 20 per cent of the employees we survey say that they are giving the very best that they can to their jobs. And the longer people have stayed at their employer, the lower their committment tends to be.

In times of high suspicion, leaders are presumed guilty and all sorts of rotten motives are attributed to any ambiguous action. Business leaders no longer get the benefit of the doubt that they ordinarily enjoy from the public. This can carry all the way to the destruction of the firm. Think of Arthur Andersen.

Most American corporate leaders do not equate stewardship with their company's growth. And I think I understand why. Consumers learn that General Electric has done some wonderful things for Zambia. The reaction is "that's nice". But they still reach for the Westinghouse light bulb that costs 5 cents less. Business is familiar with that reality.

In 1999, I conducted a 50th anniversary survey of the Hardvard Business School class of 1949. They were mostly in their 70's. The guiding principles that they used when making business decisions were articulated using phrases like "work hard" "live by the rules", "distinguish right from wrong", and "practice self-discipline and self-sacrifice". That's enlightened self-interest.
These attitudes were replaced in the 1960's and 1970's by unenlightened self-interest: win at any cost. Strip away regulations and constraints. Anything that isn't illegal is OK. Conflict of interest is not a real issue, except for a few straightlaced dummies. Everybody bends the rules.
Someody caught in an ethically questionable situation would then say "well I didn't do anything wrong - I didn't break the law". For somebody of my generation, ethics doesn't have anything to do with breaking the law. Essentially, there was a dumbing-down of morality that happened in the 1960's and 1970's.

Why are HR groups ineffective?

by Graham Email

Ever wondered how it is that business people and leaders speak like idiots?

by Graham Email


One of the enduring mysteries of corporate life is how much communication (in the form of presentations, speeches, documents etc.) is simply diabolically constructed, written and delivered. I have seen so much cack disguised as communication, it beggars belief. The syndrome is widespread - small and large corporations alike suffer from these problems.
If you visit this site, you can get a tool to help in analyzing some of the BS that is sprinkled (in some cases liberally) through corporate communications.

The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint

by Graham Email

For some time, I have been wrestling with why I was unable to communicate as effectively as I wanted to using PowerPoint, which, for better or worse, has become the de facto standard for visual slide-based presentations in modern corporations (and it even gets used in high schools - both of my children have already been exposed to PowerPoint in their curricula).
It's easy to see folks presenting using PowerPoint in a way that reduces their credibility (the most obvious sin being to simply read text off a foil, implying that the audience is too dumb and/or too lazy to read it). I have seen a number of other egregious abuses over the years.
However, last year I spent a modest sum of money on a document from Edward Tufte, one of the thought leaders in the art of visual presentation of information. He wrote "The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint" late in 2003, as a way of alerting us to the many dangers lurking beneath the surface of that software tool. The paper does an excellent job of explaining the issues with the use of PowerPoint (far better than I could), but here are some of the main points that Tufte makes:

- The text-based approach to creating foils leads to appallingly low information density - far worse even than the spoken word
- The hierarchical style of bulleted indented lists leads to the trivialization, artificial simplification and unselective editting of information
- Normal use of large-resolution tables elminates any serious quantitative analysis of data, replacing it with out-of-context editted summaries that may seriously distort or falsify messages
- Use of clip art ("Phluff" is how Tufte refers to it) further reduces information density, patronizes audiences and bores serious listeners to tears

Tufte illustrates many of the issues with examples from real life, most notably from the report on the demise of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. The centrepiece of his document is an absolutely appalling PowerPoint slide submitted to the Accident Investigation team that completely distorts analysis results, as the foil moves from a bland and corporate double-speak high-level summary that appears to suggest no significant risk, to poorly-presented lower level information showing that there is a very significant risk to the shuttle on re-entry. He also includes an amusingly-mangled version of the Gettysburg address converted to a classically awful corporate-style PowerPoint presentation, all created using PowerPoint's Auto-Content Wizard. I have to say that I never used this feature, and now I see what it could do to a message, I'm glad I never tried it. I shudder to think what you could do with the Declaration of Independence or the Preamble to the Constitution...
"The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint" may be the best $8 I ever spent on a document...

Article on Ajax

by Graham Email


Every so often a new offering emerges that makes me feel more positive that I.T. can evolve in a value-added fashion. Here is an overview of Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript with XML), an approach that promises to bridge the gap between the user experiences on the Web and the richness of a dedicated desktop application.

about Corporate Doublespeak

by Graham Email

Corporations are notorious for creating and disseminating the usage of buzz-words or phrases which attempt to convert a potentially unpalatable concept to one that sounds either neutral or positive. In the worst case, this tips over the line into Orwellian language.
Recent examples i have encountered include "rightsizing", which was developed as a replacement for "downsizing" (same result, different phrase), and my favourite, "best shore" (an attempt to replace "offshoring").
Another class of phraseology used by leadership and management is almost as insidious. This is what I would classify as a Subtle Dismissal.
Here are some examples:

"With the Greatest Respect"
Meaning: I have no respect for your thoughts and expressed ideas or opinions at all

"I Hear What You're Saying"
Meaning: I will ignore that

"Let me think about that"
Meaning: Let me figure out a superficially plausible reason why I won't take any action to address the item you just raised.

All of these types of communication fall into the category of what I call doublespeak. Doublespeak is an insidious and deeply counter-productive tendency in modern corporate life. By playing fast and loose with the meaning of words (usually by adopting combinations of words in an attempt to create euphemisms) it devalues the true meaning and richness of language, but more seriously, it reduces management and leadership credibility.
When corporate leaders use doublespeak to communicate new corporate strategies and policies, they send two powerful messages:

1. We think that we can convince you that (Insert Latest Initiative Here) is positive, even if it looks negative from your current viewpoint
2. We think that we can convince you not by engaging in fact-based arguments and open, honest discussion, but instead by engaging in trite linguistic window-dressing

In short, the use of doublespeak communicates a mixture of leadership laziness and contempt for the intelligence of the corporations workforce. Not a good message to be sending if you are a corporate leader.

Wednesday Words

by Graham Email

More excellent definitions from Fad Surfing In The Boardroom:

Blame The living embodiment of the principle that it is indeed better to give than to receive.

Exogenous variables What got us into trouble. Not to be confused with management decisions.

Horizontal organization A way to rotate an organizational chart by ninety degrees and then pretend that hierarchy no longer exists once the chart lies on its side and people are organized around processes rather than tasks.

learning The unintended side-effect of failure.

mission statement 1: A short, specific statement of purpose, intended to serve as a loose musical score that motivates everybody to play the same tune without strict supervision
2: Frequently, an assertion of undying committment to some amalgam of "total quality", "low-cost producer", "empowered workforce", "people care", "excellence", "continuous improvement" and other bizbuz shibboleths that, althugh written for a specific organization, is equally applicable to an aircraft manufacturer, a software development organization, a community hospital, a department store chain, or the local dry cleaners
3: In some corporations, a talisman, hung in public places, to ward off evil spirits.

MSU (acronym) Make Stuff Up A commonly used technique for generating the data needed to prove one's point.

Office affair A romantic liaison between two co-workers thought to be secret by the two particpants and widely followed and discussed by everybody in the building.

Open environment A place where you can say anything you want as long as you don't rock the boat and where you can find out anything you want as long as you discover it by using the internal grapevine.

Opportunity 1: A favourable circumstance, conducive to progress or advancement
2: A euphemism, frequently used by consultants, marketing managers and aspiring vice-presidents, to describe a problem or a threat.

process check Politically correct way of saying "shut up" and otherwise retaining power to control the agenda of a working group (see hockey check).

Pro forma 1: Financial projections 2: A genre of fiction, composed primarily of numbers.

Quality 1: A rallying cry used by many, defined by few, and seldom the basis of thoughful discussion
2: (rarely) Superiority as defined by what a customer is prepared to pay for

Thank you The two most under-used words in management.

War A metaphor for business from the customer is unaccountably excluded.

Upward feedback Unless anonymous, an oxymoron

Sacred cow That which, whether right or wrong, cannot be challenged and therefore is the most threatening beast in the corporate jungle

LIFO (acronymn) Last In First Out 1: An accounting rule for valuing inventory and cost of goods sold 2: A management technique for identifying who will get laid off that avoids unpleasant judgements based on value to the company.

Other Useful Management definitions

by Graham Email

Pessimist (n) An optimist in full possession of the facts.

You can slide further on bullshit than on gravel
Old saleperson's saying

OMG Conference Report coming...

by Graham Email

I attended an OMG conference in Orlando, FL in March for 4 days. The theme of the conference was SOA, Web Services and Model Driven Architecture (MDA).
This was a very interesting conference for all sorts of reasons. It was not one of the "fill the aircraft hangar with attendees and pass out opera glasses to spot Bill Gates" conferences - there were no more than 100 people present at the busiest time, which made it more intimate and immediate. I got to meet a lot of interesting people, and had several interesting side conversations. I will be reporting on the events at this conference on a day-by-day basis over the next couple of weeks, and providing some commentary of my own on the current state of the MDA opportunity space (and this, folks, is a great opportunity space, which the industry has already had one failure in, with CASE in the 1990's).

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