Modern Business Jargon: Understanding what your bosses and co-workers are actually saying

Burning platform photo courtesy of Micky Aldridge
...that is, if they mean anything at all! (I compiled these from sources listed at the end.)

Best Practice

Refers to a method or technique that delivers superior results compared with other methods and techniques. It is also perhaps the single most pompous confection the consulting industry has ever dreamed up. Another widely used term promulgated by the arch-demons of business - management consultants - "best practices" is used to describe the "best" techniques or methods in use in a company, field, or industry. Unfortunately, companies often confuse latest or trendiest with best, and the best practices of one era are soon superseded by the ever-more-ludicrous fads of the next.

Bleeding Edge

Someone decided that his product or service was so cutting-edge that a new term needed to be created. It did not. Unless you are inventing a revolutionary bladed weapon, leave this one alone.

Body of Work

A high-nosed way of summarizing the total output of an industry or company. Stop trying so hard and just say “product line,” or some such.

Boil the Ocean

This means to waste time. The thinking here, we suppose, is that boiling the ocean would take a long time. It would also take a long time to fly to Jupiter, but we don't say that. Nor should we boil oceans, even the Arctic, which is the smallest. It would be a waste of time.

Burning Platform

Jargon for an impending crisis. Better: “We’re in big trouble.”
Burning platform photo courtesy of Micky Aldridge
Burning platform photo courtesy of Micky Aldridge

Buy-In

Agreement on a course of action, if the most disingenuous kind. Notes David Logan, professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business: “Asking for someone’s ‘buy-in’ says, ‘I have an idea. I didn’t involve you because I didn’t value you enough to discuss it with you. I want you to embrace it as if you were in on it from the beginning, because that would make me feel really good.’”

Core Competency

This awful expression refers to a firm’s or a person’s fundamental strength---even though that’s not what the word “competent” means. “This bothers me because it is just a silly phrase when you think about it,” says Bruce Barry, professor of management at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Business. “Do people talk about peripheral competency? Being competent is not the standard we’re seeking. It’s like core mediocrity.” Simply put, it means "what the company does best." When a company focuses on its core competencies, it gets back to basics. I recommend leveraging these.

Corporate Values

This expression is so suffused with phoniness it churns the stomach. Corporations don’t have values, the people who run them do.

Cut and Dry

Unless you’re talking about carpentry, eschew this hackneyed turn of phrase.

Drill Down

A phrase often wielded by superiors wanting a subject examined more closely. "Drill down to what?" asks Shut Up and Say Something author Karen Friedman. "The oil?"

Drinking the Kool-Aid

A tasteless reference to the Jonestown Massacre of 1978, this expression means to blindly accept something, such as a company’s “mission statement.” Robotic allegiance is bad enough; coming up with tactless expressions for it is horrendous

Ducks in a Row

The saying apparently comes from the earlier days of bowling before machines set pins automatically. One needed to get his “ducks in a row” before hurling a weighty ball down the alley. Better: At work, “make a plan”; then later, if you’d like, “go bowling.”

Ecosystem

The vast, interlinked collection of designers, vendors, manufacturers, customers that defines a particular industry. Unless your business is aquaculture, stop using this pretentious expression.

Empower

What someone above your pay grade does when, apparently, they would like you to do a job of some importance. Also called “the most condescending transitive verb ever.” It suggests that ‘You can do a little bit of this, but I’m still in charge here.: I am empowering you’”, says Dr. Jennifer Chatman, professor of management at the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Full Service

If you don't work at a gas station, please please don’t use this expression. "If I hear one more professional describe their business as 'full service,' I'm going to scream," says Deborah Shames, co-author of Own The Room: Business Presentations that Engage, Persuade and Get Results. “Does this mean your investment firm drops off dry cleaning and provides babysitters?"

Giving 110%

The nice thing about effort, in terms of measuring it, is that the most you can give is everything, and everything equals 100%. You can’t give more than that, unless you can make two or more of yourself on the spot, in which case you have a very interesting talent indeed. To tell someone to give more than 100% is to also tell them that you failed second-grade math.

Hard Stop

An executive with a "hard stop" at 3 p.m. is serious about ending the meeting at 3 p.m. Very serious, and also very important---or at least that's how it comes off, observes Patricia Kilgore, president of Sterling Kilgore, a Chicago area public relations and marketing firm. "To me it sounds like ‘This meeting isn't really that important, so I need a way to get out of it,'" she says. A heart attack is a hard stop, Kilgore adds; anything else is just a conflict.

Impact

This wannabe verb came to prominence, says Bryan Garner, editor in chief of Black's Law Dictionary, because most people don't understand the difference between the words "affect" and "effect." Rather than risk mixing them up, they say, "We will impact our competitor's sales with this new product." A tip: "Affect" is most commonly a verb, "effect" a noun. For instance: When you affect my thinking, you may have an effect on

It is What it Is

Thanks. Idiot.

Learnings

Like most educated people, Michael Travis, an executive search consultant, knows how to conjugate a verb. That's why he cringes when his colleagues use the word "learning" as a noun. As in: "I had a critical learning from that project," or "We documented the team's learnings." Whatever happened to simply saying: "I learned a lesson from that project?" Says Travis: "Aspiring managers would do well to remember that if you can't express your idea without buzzwords, there may not be an idea there at all."

Let's Talk That

For some troubled souls this phrase takes the place of "let's discuss that," or "let's talk about that." Let's talk that? Talk this.

Leverage

The granddaddy of nouns converted to verbs. ‘Leverage’ is mercilessly used to describe how a situation or environment can be manipulated or controlled. Leverage should remain a noun, as in “to apply leverage,” not as a pseudo-verb, as in “we are leveraging our assets.”

Lots of Moving Parts

Pinball machines have lots of moving parts. Many of them buzz and clank and induce migraine headaches. Do you want your business to run, or even appear to run, like a pinball machine? Then do not say it involves lots of moving parts.

Low-Hanging Fruit

You’d rather not have to climb the tree to get your apple, so you curb your hunger by picking the low-hanging ones. Same goes for business tasks and opportunities. Except that no one knows which tasks and opportunities you’re talking about, or whether ticking them off, easy as that sounds, is a good idea in the first place.

Make Hay

Jargon for being productive or successful in a short period of time. The phrase ‘to make hay’ is short for ‘make hay while the sun shines’, which can be traced to John Heywood’s The Proverbs, Epigrams and Miscellanies of John Heywood (circa 1562). A handy nugget for cocktail conversation, but that’s it.

Move the Needle

This beauty, which has nothing to do with heroin, is a favorite of venture capitalists. If something doesn't move the needle, meaning that it doesn’t generate a reaction (like, positive cash flow), they don't like it much. So when pitching VCs, make clear that you intend to move the needle. Or you could just say, specifically, how your plan and product are superior to your competitors’.

Open the Kimono

“Some people use this instead of ‘revealing information.’ It’s kind of creepy,” says Bruce Barry, professor of management at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Business. Just keep your kimono snuggly fastened.

Out of Pocket

Many auto-reply e-mails now carry the phrase: "I'm 'out of pocket' until next week." Mark Daly, an account manager at the Davies Murphy Group, a marketing firm, astutely observes: "Expenses come out of pockets, quarterbacks come out of the pocket, but Johnny, well he'll just be plain unavailable or out of the office."

Over the Wall

If you're not wielding a grappling hook, avoid this meaningless expression. Katie Clark, an account executive at Allison & Partners, a San Francisco public relations firm, got a request from her boss to send a document "over the wall." Did he want her to print out the document, make it into a paper airplane and send it whooshing across the office? Finally she asked for clarification. "It apparently means to send something to the client," she says. "Absurd!" Agreed.

Peel the Onion

This means to delve into a problem, one layer at a time, to thoroughly understand what’s causing all the trouble. As metaphors go, there are worse. But like the actual vegetable, this over-used expression brings tears to the eye.

Price Point

"Come on, seriously, why say 'price point'?" begs Duncan Phillips, an account executive at The Hodges Partnership, a communications firm in Richmond, Va. “Just say price!”

Punt

In football, to punt means to willingly (if regretfully) kick the ball to the other team to control your team’s position on the field. In business it means to give up on an idea, or to make it less of a priority at the moment. In language as in life, punt too often and you’ll never score.

Reach Out

Jargon for “let’s set up a meeting” or “let’s contact this person.” Just say that---and unless you want the Human Relations department breathing down your neck, please don’t reach out unless clearly invited.

Robust

Often used to suggest a product or service with a virtually endless capacity to please. A cup of good coffee should carry this adjective. And that’s about it.

Scalable

A scalable business or activity refers to one that requires little additional effort or cost for each unit of output it generates. Example: Making software is a scalable business (building it requires lots of effort up front; distributing a million copies over the Web is relatively painless). Venture capitalists crave scalable businesses. They crave them so much that the term now has become more annoying than the media’s obsession with Lindsay Lohan.

Solution

This word has come to mean everything from the traditional way to solve a mathematical proof to a suite of efficiency-enhancing software--and it is the epitome of lingual laziness. Says Glen Turpin, a communications consultant: "It usually refers to a collection of technologies too abstract or complex to describe in a way that anyone would care about if they were explained in plain English." Companies no longer sell products or services; they sell "solutions," which are products or services, but more expensive.

S.W.A.T. Team

In law enforcement, this term refers to teams of fit men and women who put themselves in danger to keep people safe. “In business, it means a group of ‘experts’ (often fat guys in suits) assembled to solve a problem or tackle an opportunity” says USC’s Logan. An apt comparison, if you’re a fat guy in a suit.

Swim Lane

A specific responsibility within a business organization, which is what no one aside from Michael Phelps should call it.

Synergize

This word has infiltrated nearly every cube and conference room in the country. Blame Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. (No. 6 is Synergize.) Of this habit, Covey writes, "To put it simply, synergy means two heads are better than one." The same advice was preached several decades earlier on the hit show Sesame Street. Big Bird called it "cooperation."

Take it to the Next Level

In theory this means to make something better. In practice, it means nothing, mainly because nobody knows what the next level actually looks like and thus whether or not they’ve reached it. (For ways of actually measuring what's going on at your company, check out:"Nine Enlightening Business-Performance Metrics.")

Take Offline

An equally absurd variation of ‘let’s put this on the backburner.’ This means to postpone addressing an issue---one that may have nothing to do with the Internet. Unless you’re talking about removing your company’s Facebook page, you’re probably not taking anything offline.

Think Outside the Box

To approach a business problem in an unconventional fashion. Kudos to a Forbes.com reader who suggested: "Forget the box, just think."

Tiger Teams

Remember S.W.A.T. Team? This is worse. A ‘tiger team’ is also a group of experts---specifically a bunch of tech geeks entrusted with curing your computer ills. Go Tigers!

Vertical

A specific area of expertise. If you make project-management software for the manufacturing industry (as opposed to the retail industry), you might say, “We serve the manufacturing vertical.” In so saying, you would make everyone around you flee the conversation.

Window of Opportunity

This breezy expression refers to the amount of time, usually brief, in which to take action; when the window shuts, dreams of freedom die. Better scramble through that sucker. Or at least “take action.”  

Brand alignment

An oldie but a goodie used to kill off many a good idea. As in, "that's not how we do things around here".

Like a duck, calm on the surface and frantically paddling underneath

Maybe cute the first time you heard it, definitely not the 27th time.

Outcomes-based education

"As if the rest of us were educated without regard to the outcomes, and that's why we're stupid."

Paradigm shift

Best summed up by urban dictionary: "Has no real meaning, but people like to pretend it does"

Thought leader

Don Watson's personal pet hate: "It's come out of that penchant for team work and buy-in strategies and all that accelerated collaborative events and endless conferencing…with that comes a whole new set of phrases."

Vanilla

Read: boring

We'll park that

What happens when you can't find the answer to the question the meeting was called for in the first place. So why are we in this meeting again?

We're not reinventing the wheel

No, we're not.  

actionable (adj.)

Capable of being acted on or completed in the near future. "Which items on our list are actionable in the next quarter?" I recommend showering after using this one. Note: "actionable" has a long-standing legal meaning different from the above.

at the end of the day

Based on the frequency with which they use the phrase, it would seem that members of senior management are required by law to begin every third sentence with "at the end of the day," a phrase similar in meaning to "when all is said and done." For instance, your favorite CEO might say, "At the end of the day, it's our people that make the difference." Insert platitude here.

bandwidth (n.)

Plan your work well lest ye run out of "bandwidth," or physical, mental or emotional capacity. Spake our friend Frank B. Kern, Internet Guru, "....I just don't have the bandwidth to handle this at the minute," meaning "I don't have the manpower or ability to handle this at the minute."

best of breed (n. and adj.)

The finest specimen or example to be found in a particular industry or market. Like Papillons preening for the judges, companies position themselves as best-of-breed. In truth, however, few ever make it through the qualifiers.

bring to the table (v. phrase)

Refers to what one offers or provides, especially in negotiations. Personally, I bring a fork.

centers of excellence

Certainly beats centers of failure. Most companies have a nice set of both.

circle back around (v.)

A very roundabout (pardon the pun) way of saying "Let's regroup later to discuss."

circle with (v.)

Like its cousin "circle back around," it means "to meet and/or discuss with." Usage example: "Why don't you circle with Robert tomorrow to discuss the Ebbers case?" I can't help but envision two well-dressed exec types holding hands and madly circling around to the delight of everyone in their cubicle farm.

close the loop (v. phrase)

To follow up on and/or close out an area of discussion. Closely related to "circle back around" and "loop in."

commoditize (v.); commoditized (adj.)

A great fear and apprehension in business is having your product or service become "commoditized," or turned into Just Another Mediocre Piece of Junk (JAMPoJ to those in the know), completely undifferentiated from its peers.

componentize (v.)

Nigh unpronounceable, this gremlin means "to turn into a component." For what purpose will forever remain a mystery.

deliverables (n.)

Denoting project output or assignments, "deliverables" are often "tasked" (see below), but seldom completed.

dial-in (v.)

Despite the obvious reference to a telephone, this one means to "include." For example, "We need to dial-in the materials list."

disintermediate

In the bleak days before the arrival of our savior, the Web, Big Tony used to claim that he had "eliminated the middleman to bring direct savings to you." Big Tony used a shotgun to eliminate ("disintermediate") intermediaries in the supply chain; today's companies use the Internet.

disambiguate (v.)

This mouthful began life in the exciting field of linguistics only to be co-opted by the high-tech business set. It means to settle on a single interpretation or meaning for a piece of data, or to bring meaning and order to ambiguity. Much like this Web site.

disincent

The third member of the incent-incentivize-disincent axis of evil.

driver (n.)

If you think this one has something to do with the people who drive trucks, you're wrong (but I still like you). It refers to the factors or agents that move something forward: "What are the key drivers of organizational change?"

eat(ing) your own dog food (v. phrase)

When your company starts using its own products internally and suddenly realizes why the rest of the world hates them so much.

ecosystem (n.)

Companies now longer participate in industries; they inhabit vast ecosystems comprised of consumers, partners, innocent bystanders, and, increasingly, competitors. The idea is to be at the center of your ecosystem, so integral to its operations that the actions of all other participants seem to benefit you as much as them (also see Network Effects). But remember to look out for lions.

gain traction (v.)

To gain momentum or acceptance. "Cisco's new routers are gaining traction in the marketplace."

going forward (adv.)

Meaning "in the future" or "from now on." For instance: "Going forward, we see our gross margins increasing as our new high-margin products gain traction."

granular (adj.); granularity (n.)

Getting down to the fine details, the nitty-gritty. Busy people might stop you mid-sentence if you get too granular. Like sand through an hourglass, these are the days of our lives.

go-live (adj. and v.)

A new product or system becomes available to the public on its "go-live" date. Presumably, the same product or system will "go-dead" soon thereafter.

heads-up (n. sorta)

"This is a heads-up" is a very American way of saying, "I'm telling you this now because xyz item is hurdling in your direction and you're going to need to do something or get out of the way." It's simultaneously a notice and a warning.

high-level (adj.)

Senior executives, far-sighted individual with godlike abilities to see the big picture, want anything brought to their attention to be "high-level", that is, neatly summarized and dumbed down so they can understand all the techno mumbo jumbo.

incent (v. tr.)

A transitive verb meaning "encourage" or "influence": "The program was set up to incent users to spend more." Also the leading member of the incent-incentivize-disincent axis of evil.

incentivize (v. tr)

The second member of the incent-incentivize-disincent axis of evil.

instantiate (v.)

The unholy offspring of "instant" and "substantiate," "instantiate" means to verify or document an instance of a particular behavior or issue.

mindshare (n.)

Sorta like "marketshare," but without the revenue and sounding a whole lot creepier. Don't use this one around Vulcans.

modularize (v.)

To turn into a training module. Say, you start off with a simple piece of information that anyone with a 6th grade education and a quartet of functioning brain cells would instantly grasp. To justify your position as a highly paid corporate trainer, you might try to veil this information in a cloak of incomprehensibility, rendering the straightforward a smelly pile of jargonous bile. Indeed, the information has been modularized.

operationalize (v.)

A horribly polysyllabic way of saying "carry out" or (gasp) "do." Oh, the humanity!

paradigm [shift] (n.)

Paradigm is an extra fancy word for "model." A paradigm shift means moving from one model to a new one, generally in a grand, expensive, and ultimately disastrous manner. If I had a pair of dimes for every time I've heard this one...

pushback (n.)

If you have a lot of sound, logical ideas, you're bound to run into a lot of resistance in today's surreal corporations. This resistance, often polite but always absurd, is euphemistically called "pushback." Try not to take it personally: you're dealing with the insane.

rough order of magnitude (n.)

Fancy way of saying "to make a wild (ass) guess."

scope (v.)

To set the scope of a product, i.e. to determine what "functionality" will be included. After products are "scoped," they are invariably "descoped" as reality reasserts itself.

seamless (adj.)

The holy grail with ERP and other complex systems is to produce a "seamless end-to-end solution." The seams are the bottomless pits of hell into which your data falls when transferred from one end of the solution to the other

surface (v.)

While many of our more jargon-illiterate readers might envision submarines upon first hearing this word, it is used by management professionals as a synonym of "raise," as in "raise concerns." For instance: "I think we need to surface those issues before the product is launched."

synergy (n.); synergize (v.)

The (often illusory) value gained by combining two or more companies or divisions. Also known as "economies of scope" and "corporate merger BS."

take to the next level (v. phrase)

I used to know a guy with a Level 20 Wizard. But seriously, this means to move a product, service, or organization from its current level of dysfunction to the next level of dysfunction.

task (v. tr.)

Yet another noun turned verb, this one means "to assign." Now go task someone with some deliverables.

30,000 feet, at

A high-level view or explanation. Please keep in mind that oxygen is in short supply at this altitude, so you may experience lightheadedness.

value chain (n.)

As I find it impossible to define "value chain" without sullying myself with the very thing that I abhor most (jargon, for those of you keeping score), I've chosen to "borrow" from another site a definition so preposterous that I just had to include it: "a business methodology that helps companies manage marketplace variability and complexity, and align company strategies with execution processes." Thanks for clarifying!

world-class (adj.)

Means you're best in class, a benchmark. If your product, service or solution ain't world-class, you might as well close up shop and go home. Luckily, everything at your corporation is either world-class now, or will be by next quarter. Or at least that's what management's been telling everyone.   Sources: http://www.johnsmurf.com/jargon2.htm http://www.forbes.com/pictures/ekij45gdh/most-annoying-business-jargon/ http://www.news.com.au/business/worklife/business-jargon-words-we-never-ever-want-to-hear-again/story-e6frfm9r-1226651466738