Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Using big phrases to sound smart doesn't work

I'm quite tired of hearing management speak. I was listening to a podcast of an interview with someone who teaches MBA students. After a while, it was jarring to hear the following phrases:
  1. "What they bring to the table"
  2. "system of methodologies" (?)
  3. "technology and innovation arbitrage" (?)
  4. "building an ecosystem"
  5. "the Xs of the world", as in "the McDonalds of the world"
  6. "leveraging cost"
  7. "access to your talent pool"

I used to think people who use these words wanted to sound very smart and knowledgeable. Deep in their hearts, they knew that what they said was a load of dirt, but they wanted to disguise it as very deep wisdom.

The reality is much simpler. A lot of these words are standard management-speak, transferred annually from teacher to student. When you hear your professor say the word "vertical system of methodologies" enough number of times, you begin to believe that it really means something. A year later, you're out with an MBA, and before you know it, you are confidently talking about "systems of methodologies", which just happen to be vertical. And you advice your clients to build an ecosystem that creatively encourages technology and innovation aribitrage, leveraging cost, and proactively maintains access to your talent pool.

A lot of this talk is just rubbish, and reminds me of Psychology majors, who talk endlessly about a subject without knowing anything about it. There is a large difference between saying something which is technical and just sounding technical. When a scientist says, "Octree discretization for level set methods", each term has a very clearly defined meaning. Clear enough that you can describe the above statement with a mathematical equation. But just stringing together technical sounding words doesn't get you there.

My standard trick to blast through the bullshit defence is to ask the person to explain what they are saying, but using simple words that a 5 year old can understand. If you cannot explain "vertical system of methodologies" without using those three words (I'll be generous: you can use "of"), then you don't know what you are talking about. Incidentally, I can explain an "octree discretization for level set methods" without using any of those words. And, I have successfully explained the concept to parents, people without Math knowledge, a 9 year old kid, and an Indonesian orangutan. Ok, maybe not the last, but all others.

Using big phrases to sound cool doesn't work.