Organisational culture and the generative commons: The ethics of buzzwords

Here’s a list of buzzwords. I want to make a quick point. Note that there are very few ugly neologisms there – or even expressions that don’t have clear meanings. Most of the expressions have very clear meanings. Indeed, some of them are quite compelling That’s their point. The problem is different. Unfortunately, a lot of people think complaining about this stuff is the same as complaining about punctuation or grammar or that kind of stuff. I think the real problem is very different. It’s not even that loose use of expressions facilitates loose thinking, it’s that it facilitates a particular kind of loose thinking.

The problem is that, having been coined these expressions are taken up as if saying them makes what they assert true. For instance, I like the term ‘dovetail’. It captures precisely something very worthwhile – to have a very well articulated interface or relationship between two parts of a system. But of course once the word gets ‘traction’ as we say in the trade, everyone starts simply using it – we’ve got to ensure that finance and marketing dovetail well together. Yeah – sure. I recall one Great and Fearless Leader of mine frequently saying that we would “really think through” things creating all the affectations of thoroughness, rigour and self-awareness in our thinking, other than those qualities themselves.

From an excellent far reaching think piece by Aaron Maniam which you can read here. Has our equivalent of the Singaporese Civil Service College – I guess ANZSOG – published anything as insightful as this lately?

So what’s happening here is not an aesthetic, but an ethical breach. As Adam Smith explained – though not using modern terms – culture is a public good to which we all contribute as we use and are part of it, or to use an excellent term of Aaron Maniam’s, it’s a ‘generative commons’.1 Such things are maintained by the ethical practice of the donors and beneficiaries of the commons – the carriers of the culture. So if the boss starts saying that we’re ‘really thinking things through’ when his whole purpose is to substitute the expression for the deed, then he’s degrading the culture, which is tied very closely to the capacity of the organisation to deliberate and act. It’s a much subtler affair, and as a result one needs much subtler methods to try to fight this kind of breach, but the breach itself is like unjust enrichment or breach of fiduciary duty.

Anyway, over the fold I thought I’d race through the words and colour code them. Red for ugly, dumb, buzzwords, blue for very useful clear and indeed compelling expressions. 

 At the end of the day we should reconsider baking into our work all buzzwords, but I know bandwidth is a challenge. We need more bench strength to allocate resources to build a straw man 2 for a new approach and create a dead on burning platform 3 that our change agents can drive across the change network.

We need to create a parking lot 4 of forbidden buzzwords and build the critical mass needed to make this change happen while cross-pollinating across companies. We need to organize a large scale data dump, orchestrate a buzzword deep dive 5 and create deliverables 6 that solve this issue in real time. 7

These deliverables must dove-tail with other work drilling down 8 into buzzword abuse, and we must drum up support for confronting the elephant in the room, 9 which is that we may not be prepared to do anything about it.

If we create a compelling elevator speech that fleshes out the challenges of buzzword abuse, we could gain traction in getting our arms around this, circle the wagons and get all of our ducks in a row to tackle the business buzzword gatekeepers. Then we could start fresh with greenfield communication.

It’s not impossible to harness the organic process across companies equipping buzzword abusers to hit the ground running with plain speak. That would hit the nail on the head.

We need to map this out because it is so on point, but I’m open to additional mindshare. I will never be out of pocket for the hard work required to make this paradigm shift. If we peel back the onion, we all have it in our power alleys to hit this head on, generate quick wins, and pick the low hanging fruit that will allow us to start speaking like normal people again.

It may be important to prepare a deck that puts a stake in the ground and outlines the case for change so no one could push back. This deck would be a robust road map which could become the sexy project everyone wants in on that would never become shelfwareor vaporware.

We’d even encourage scope creep as we sing from the same song sheet and socialize the plan across the corporate ecosystem about making this strategic pivot.

We need to talk live and not keep it to talking at the 20,000 foot level. We’ve got to tee upa way to think outside the box back to a time before buzzword thoughtware and ideationcontaminated our communication. Figuring out how these buzzwords didn’t create tissue rejection early on is outside of my wheelhouse, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t circle back and change it.

There is no turnkey solution. We need to touch base regularly to get on the same pageand continuously vector towards success on this value add initiative. People adoptionstrategies will be vital to make this mindset shift. It’s going to feel a lot like herding catsor even like getting Jell-O to stick to the wall, but if we take it one buzzword at a time and don’t try to boil the ocean, it might work.

If you see someone walking the halls abusing buzzwords, parachute in and get down to brass tacks, re-level set with them, and connect the dots so that together we can build a better mousetrap.

This won’t be easy because many of you already have too many balls in the air and too much on your plates. Even though you are wearing multiple hats, keep your focus so we get a win-win proposition (or at least a zero sum proposition) on this work thread.

We all know this is a sticky wicket, but we’ve got to attack this on the front lines at our offices. That’s where the rubber meets the road. Feel free to ping me with other ideas about how we can increase the footprint of plain speak being used across all industry spaces.

a lot of the words are not particularly odious.

Quite a few of the words and expressions are rather well crafted.



  1. The only problem is that the term ‘commons’ implies something simple and physical – like a lake with fish in it – which is somehow unproblematically given, whereas I’d like to imply the notion of the progressive building of such an asset. But I can’t quite land the term. Generative edification is at least the name of the activity I’m after.
  2. Traditional expression.
  3. I’ve never heard this term used in a way that doesn’t give me the hebes, that’s because it’s used with rhetorical rather than analytical intent, but it’s a good compelling image of the circumstance it’s trying to capture – a do or die situation.
  4. I’ve never heard this one.
  5. I hate this expression with a passion. Invariably a ‘deep dive’ can be accommodated in a couple of hours!
  6. A bit stupid, but a quite worthwhile neologism to draw attention to the idea of the transactions between layers of an organisation.
  7. Ugly, but at least it’s intended to mean something.
  8. Another pet hate, but does try to convey something I guess.
  9. In my experience there are a lot of elephants about. I’ve been in rooms with woolly mammoths and mastodons. I was once in a room with a squadron of blue whales, but no-one was allowed to mention them.
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10 Responses to Organisational culture and the generative commons: The ethics of buzzwords

  1. paul frijters says:

    well, what can one say after such a brain dumb? You nailed your KPI’s, hat’s off, Trump that!?

  2. ChrisB says:

    When it comes up on my screen, the colours red and blue show up
    – in the first paragraph, in seven of the nine phrases, the others being underlined in black:
    – in the second paragraph, in seven of the nine phrases, the others being underlined in black:

    in all other paragraphs, not at all, all the phrases being underlined in black.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yes, sorry I lost interest and thought I’d conveyed enough after a couple of paragraphs – this was made worse by the fact that the underlying coding was requiring me to do various tricks to change the colours. Anyway, I thought I’d put this in the text, but it seems not.

      Apologies. If you’d like to call our call centre during office hours we’d be happy to take down your name after you answer a number of security questions and agree to have your voice recorded for coaching purposes. We coach a lot of people so we do a lot of things for coaching purposes – including that.

  3. Keryn says:

    Reading that list made me queasy!
    Buzzwords are clearly an ethical issue, often used to avoid meaningful communication. I’m surprised that this point is not made more often.
    Sometimes buzzwords are euphemisms, and people with the right background can guess the intended meaning. But like in your example, buzzwords are often deceitful.

    Deceit may be intentional, or may be an organisational habit where words are disconnected from real meaning, or ‘communication’ is not intended to communicate. Like George Orwell in Politics & the English language: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

    Can buzzwords be classified into ugly or useful???? I suspect it depends on use – is it an effective bit of communication for this message to this audience? Some buzzwords are always ugly and can be relegated to comedy shows. Some are potentially useful, but are highly dependent on the audience ability to get relevant meaning, and how well they’re used.

    Many of the potentially useful terms are symbolic of something with a cultural or generational basis. Which leads to quite different meanings (or none) of these buzzwords. Dovetail is a good symbolic word for people who know about joinery. Making dovetail joints requires skills and practice. But the word is meaningless to anyone who grew up with flatpack furniture. In a work context, people may guess it’s about alignment or fit, but it doesn’t convey the precision and effort required for real dovetailing. And tech references change significance over time – bandwidth used to be limited. Sports-based buzzwords leave me clueless.

    Some buzzwords are just ugly, but other are deceitful by using wrong symbolism for the purpose. Singing from the same song sheet is a really troubling phrase (as a worker and as a musician). It’s such an amateur standard to aim for, assuming that handing out a song sheet is enough for performance. Good musical performance comes from a group of people with years of training in their instrument, who practice independently then rehearse together, with a conductor who corrects each detail, down to the sound of certain vowels for the choir. An organisation who uses this metaphor & hands out its version of a ‘song sheet’ (strategic plan or whatever) and expects everyone to ‘sing along’, misunderstands humans and performance.

    Buzzword bingo can be fun, but have people become so used to the wash of meaningless words that the ethical dimension has been forgotten?

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Keryn,

      I agree with your sentiments, but then I wonder if you’re being too precise here. Obviously a lot of these buzzwords and phrases are metaphors or analogies and analogies are never perfect – that’s kind of the point of them.

      I must say ‘singing from the same song-sheet’ is pretty awful to hear for the 4,000th time, but I expect if I heard the person who came up with it say it for the first time I’d think it was rather good – a colourful, crisk image illustrating what it’s trying to illustrate – some alignment in intentions (to use an expression that I probably should be embarassed to do in this context.)

      It’s not really supposed to reflect deep insight into music making. Likewise ‘dovetail’ captures an image which I have in my mind even though I’ve never made a dovetail joint. I’m also thinking that the IKEA generation knows what a dovetail joint is, and even if they don’t – that’s language – forever moving on and leaving traces of its former self and former understandings.

      I don’t see any problems with any of this, though obviously people gravitating towards clichés as if they think they’re sounding particularly interesting, clever or cool – that starts to get irritating and also raise ethical issues.

  4. ChrisB says:

    Why would anyone want to build a better mousetrap? As Walt Kelly pointed out, it’s not the better mice that cause the problem: it’s that rough element, the worser mice.

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I ran into another example of what I really hate about this in reading the Herald-Sun today where there was a story about Chloe Shorten’s new book. Chloe’s had problems defending her privacy as she left her husband and married a leading politician who then became the Leader of the Opposition. It’s been very tough on her. In fact her privacy has posed such a problem that she’s writing a book about it to let us all know how tough it’s been. My guess is that she doesn’t want to see anyone need to go through what she’s been through – or if they do then at least they’ll find the book market has been opened up by her pioneering efforts. One does what one can. I expect her publicist is helping her defend her privacy or if not at least to articulate her difficulties to the nation now that she finds herself in a ‘leadership position’.

    In any event Chloe wants to provide guidance to others about blended families. Why is this relevant to this thread? Because Chloe says that, given the difficulties of the situation, she always knew that she – and perhaps Bill – needed to “get it right”. That expression gives me the yips right there recalling the number of times I’ve heard it intoned as if saying it were doing it. But it’s use in this context is particularly revealing. Because some would say that being in a blended family is the kind of situation that you can’t “get right” – that you’re always working on it, always guessing, always aware of important inadequacies of what you’ve done.

    Instead we get talk about ‘getting it right’.

    I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her but indeed the person I referred to in the post above didn’t only call for various imponderables to be ‘really thought through’. He was forever intoning the need to make sure we “got it right” – and that was always in the same situation – where there were difficult, messy issues to deal with so intoning the expression “we’ve really got to make sure we get it right” was an incantation of wish fulfillment and cheap and hollow theatrics. Here the ‘leadership’ shown was to take a difficult situation and to pretend one’s mastery over it by speaking of it as a simple thing, amendable to simple imperatives. Get it right. (As opposed to ‘wrong’ you understand).

    Likewise the PC explains what’s involved in “getting it right” for parental leave and childcare. You’d think it would be full of difficulties. You’d think if you avoided getting some important things wrong you’d be doing well – what with us being complex humans and all. You’d think that speaking that way would be more humbly in tune with what was possible. But it turns out you can “get it right”.

    In fact Google tells us that the PC gets it right over three hundred times.

    And Google n-gram tells us that things have been getting righter and righter.

    • John R Walker says:

      It could well be just coincidence, but the post 1970 rise in that n-gram graph would map closely to the rise in tertiary education post 1970.

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    The problem is nicely summarised in this comment.

    ‘It is certainly significant that nearly all political tendencies now wish to be described as progressive,’ wrote the cultural critic Raymond Williams, ‘but it is more frequently now a persuasive than a descriptive term.’ Quite.

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