Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Solution to Management Jargon

The older I get, the more I value - in fact, treasure - clear and precise communication. Some (not all) jargon terms like "solution" and "space" are sure-fire indicators of vagueness in both speech and thinking (or even no
thinking at all).

"Solution" is a particularly egregious example; the speaker (particularly if a sales-type) should really say "product". This ignores the fact that a product is almost never a complete solution to a business problem and that changes to processes, policies and training will also be required. This is a recurring theme in the information security business, so we should all know it, though actually walking the talk turns out to be difficult in practice. Perhaps sticking a quote from Bruce Schneier on the wall will help: "Security is a process, not a product".

Of course, the sales-type is appealing to the prospect's desire for an easy fix to a problem, and so the choice of the word is semi-deliberate. And perhaps there once was something to the notion that vendors should attempt to fit their products to customer problems, but that is a custom more honoured in the breach; I don't recall ever hearing a salesperson say, "Actually, our product isn't an exact solution to your problem. Perhaps you should talk to [name of competitor]".

"The chief cause of problems is solutions"
  --- Eric Sevareid, 1970

Very true, and some of my best consulting assignments have not been fixing up problems, they quite literally have been fixing up "solutions".

In the vast majority of cases, a product may be a component of a solution, or it may be a tool used in the creation of a solution. But it's not a solution in and of itself. In fact, the use of the term is symptomatic of pandering to over-inflated user expectations, and we all know what that leads to.

I strongly recommend that people who use the word "solution" try to get by without it for a while and see how much their critical thinking skills improve. It very often represents abstraction to the point of having lost all semantic content, and can easily be replaced by the word "product", "thing" or "sales opportunity". Or even "over-priced and bug-ridden pile of junk that is going to create even more work".

Jargon - whether technical or management-related - tends to aggregate, encapsulate and hide lots of assumptions for convenience. That's why it's used. And I know from experience that teasing out those hidden assumptions can be extremely rewarding, whether it's being done for risk analysis or product evaluation. Sometimes, it's true, we use jargon as a marker of group membership - to sound like a consultant or technical expert. Many of us are quite capable of playing that game in order to gain initial acceptance by clients & colleagues, but can take it one step further - when we steer the conversation into a deeper level in order to get beneath the veneer of jargon, and find that our interlocutor is still spouting buzzwords and acronyms, then we know to be on our guard. The probability of problems down the track due to hidden assumptions is quite high.

Words like "solution" do to your brain what fast food does to your body.

Just like that Big Mac, jargon phrases have had a lot of processing before they get to you, and contain lots of hidden connotations that aren't always good for you.

The problem is endemic, and has spread to small businesses, presumably because they want to sound like big businesses. My wife recently told me about a small store a couple of suburbs over from us that sells equipment for people who mess about on boats - what used to be called a "ship's chandler" - but now describe themselves as suppliers of "boating solutions". Barf. Pittwater, just north of Sydney, is something of a boating paradise and opportunity for lots of pleasure, not problems that require solutions.

The word "solution" should be taken round the back, late at night, and shot in the head, then rolled up in old carpet and dumped by a deserted highway where the hyenas can dispose of the remains. It is a lazy and unproductive little toe-rag that over-promises and under-delivers, contributes nothing to society and can usually be seen loitering around the scene while mortgage financiers, bank CEO's, consultants, salesmen and other ne'er-do-wells abscond with misappropriated cash from idiots who believe that they can buy stuff that will do their jobs for them.