Feb 21

Buzzword Reaction Syndrome

Cliches in work environments are like fog in San Francisco, political machines in Chicago and expensive apartments in Manhattan: it practically defines the environment.  I experienced this at a recent meeting where a manager I have known since he started at the ground level went through a litany of tired buzzwords during a discussion that was meant to get people excited about an upcoming very large transition. Management by buzzword is his style. I do not believe I have ever been in a meeting with this manager in which he has not used at least one to two overused, exhausted management buzzwords. And I admit that I cringe in mental agony every time he drops one of these buzzwords into his conversation.

This leads to a few questions.
(1)Where do buzzwords come from?
(2)Why do people adopt and use buzzwords?
(3)Why do I, and others, react so negatively to buzzwords?
(4)Is there a way for me to change my reaction to buzzwords?
(5)Can I learn something from people that are using buzzwords?

(1) It’s a mystery to me how these things get started and I can only speculate. It might have something to do with phrases and terms used in academic texts and environments being adopted for use by students or other readers of those texts or participants in those classes. Metaphors are very useful in the sciences as starting points to bring in neophytes to difficult ideas, but these metaphors are often used and the actual messages by students, readers and others as the actual message itself. This can create a sort of Chinese Whispers effect with the actual idea and you end up with rather startling reality impacting practices such as creationists radically misusing the word “theory” outside its very well defined meaning in the sciences and a whole world of people using “begs the question” when they mean “leads to the question”.

(2) Again I can only guess people use buzzwords as shortcuts for larger concepts the same way that people use metaphors as shortcuts for understanding concepts. Once a buzzword is in use by a large number of people (or, to use a current buzzword that’s in full bloom right now, ‘in the wild’) then it has taken on a conceptual meaning that quite likely doesn’t have anything to do with the origin of the phrase. People probably use the buzzword to convey a large conceptual idea quickly. This does make the broad (and often incorrect) assumption that everyone will have experienced the buzzword or will be able to grasp the meaning from the words within context. Of course, I am sure that many people use buzzwords to look ‘in the know’ about their field and to assert themselves as being knowledgeable and current about their field. That is a charitable way of saying people use buzzwords to try to make themselves look smart, often trying to look smarter than they really are or cover up deficiencies in their knowledge or skills. Sadly, I have a suspicion that a great deal of buzzword use falls into this latter usage.

(3) is interesting to me because it is a self-exploration into why I have an immediate emotional reaction to something. I will just say that I essentially cringe, mostly internally but often quite externally, at the use of buzzwords. In particular the use of buzzwords by managers or even co-workers that fall into using them simply as a method of forwarding themselves as ‘in the know’ in their field in addition to using them to cover up deficiencies in their skills. It makes me mad. There’s no way around that part of it. It makes me mad at how broken both people and systems are that reward a behavior that should be viewed as a warning of a person’s ignorance. Perhaps ignorance is too strong of a word, though. Lack of creative or critical thinking skills is more likely the warning one should take from buzzword use. Using buzzwords is often a shortcut to latching on to a popular, bigger idea that looks like it is working for everyone else. Certainly, in some cases, buzzwords evolve into larger conceptual frameworks that genuinely describe an industry-wide phenomena, such as an industry’s adoption of a management methodology or best practice system. There might even by a cyclic relationship in those cases where a buzzword idea evolves into something more significant, into a systematized and documented way of thinking, behaving or acting that becomes actual practical practices. But the negative reaction I have to buzzwords has never changed, and what I am writing here is an attempt to explore why I react and if anything positive can be achieved from experiencing their use.

(4) This is the key to why I am here. What can I do to not only change my reaction to buzzword use, but to take something positive away from it. I doubt that I will ever take away what the user of the buzzword wants me to take away from it.  The only way I think I can change my negative reaction to it is to make a game out of it that goes beyond Buzzword Bingo and make it more of a scavenger hunt instead. Instead of just checking off the words, gather them and do something with them. Make myself a prize at the end: discover what was meant by the use of those buzzwords by asking the person about them later.

(5) Can I take the negative activity of someone else and make it positive for myself in a way that is useful, compelling, and educational for me and not in a way that simply comes down to “Don’t do this.”? I supposed one way to treat it would be to take notes of the buzzwords. Write them down. Figure out what they mean and why the person may have used that buzzword to convey their idea. The next step would be to contact the person and ask them what idea they were trying to communicate with using the buzzword.  Do they remember using the buzzword? This would be a good exercise in avoiding the buzzwords and more thoroughly thinking through my own use of words and vocabulary. It would also open up a line of communication with a person that uses the words and might start a relationship with them that could open them up to changes in their communication techniques and might open me up to taking buzzwords a bit more charitably.

I have the opportunity to practice this very soon, in fact. As odd as it sounds, using a buzzword bingo sheet or a list might end up being the best way to keep track of the use of the words.  The big step is going beyond tracking them and choosing a few of the ones used and contacting the person and asking about what they meant by the use of that word and what idea they were trying to communicate.



Feb 08

Moving From Planning Stages To Tasks and Implementation Stages

One of the primary tasks I have been working on for a few weeks now is setting goals to work on over the next year for my Focus Project. Following the plan I set out on last year to have five areas of focus, this year I specifically set out to limit each area of focus to five goals total. If I reach/complete a goal in one of the areas, then I can add a new goal to work toward. Five areas of focus. Five goals under each are. Some of the goals are big, long-term types of goals that will likely just get milestones accomplished, which is fine. Other goals are small, every day small activities that lead to a larger goal being accomplished through small bits of self discipline. All of the goals each require me to focus and plan and accomplish some sets of tasks, though.

Moving on to those tasks is the challenge, though. Planning is its own tasks, of course, and it’s very easy to get myself caught up in the planning of the tasks and thinking through them and what all the steps are and then… not doing the damned things! Instead, I just plan, plan, plan. Brains are full of dumb when it comes to this sort of thing. It’s easy to convince myself that “Well, this IS part of getting the tasks done.” when I’m only doing the planning for the overall Focus Project. And that is exactly why I coming here to write as part of the whole thing: to remind myself that you can’t accomplish anything just by planning. There has to be the moving on stage when you begin working on the tasks and implementing some of them.

I have now reached the point that the planning phase starts to become the scheduling phase for tasks that need accomplished to move toward goals in each area of focus. Instead of getting up early to focus on the Focus Project itself, I will soon start getting up early to spend focus task times on specific tasks that need to be accomplished as baby steps toward the milestone that need to be reach in order to achieve the goal.

It goes like this for me (and probably many others): Idea for Focus Project. Determine areas of focus. Determine goals to be reached in those areas of focus. Determine measurable units, milestone markers, baby steps, attainability, relevance, time boundaries and plans to achieve the goal. It’s easy to get stuck in the planning of all of this, but today is when I stare it in the face and start scheduling the work toward the baby steps and milestones and then actually performing the work itself. Good morning Focus Project implementation phase. Let’s get started.

Feb 07

Waylaid By Jackassery

“Why is it every time I need to get somewhere, we get waylaid by jackassery?” – Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture

It’s funny just how accurate this quote from The Venture Brothers can seem some days. It’s entirely accurate to my situation in more than a few instances, though.  Other phrases for this abound. My other favorite way to describe this is from Merlin Mann: Searching for the Perfect Apostrophe. (MP3 file will open in a new window.) Basically it’s all about distraction. In the case of the Perfect Apostrophe it is about self-induced misdirection and focus on the wrong things; losing site of the end game entirely because you’re caught up in the wrong details. In the case of Dr. Venture it’s about everything around that is part of your life, including your family and your past and your colleagues and your friends and even your protectors all have connections to you that pull at you all the time, and often during the times you most need for those connections to be severed (or at least slack), they pull on your the hardest. It’s about family and personal disaster implosion and everything collapsing in on you as you try to get somewhere.

The sneaky part of this is that it’s a trap. Not an obvious trap. And worse, the trap isn’t the one you think it is at all. It isn’t that all of those things catch up with you at all. It is that in a lot of ways we all seek out being waylaid by jackassery. It’s easier to deal with the emergencies of being waylaid by jackassery than it is to deal with the mundane checklist of things you are trying to think through, write down, and cross off. The trivial tasks that seem so trivial that the jackassery all of the sudden seems more important to deal with NOW NOW NOW! Yet, often, being waylaid by jackassery is a result of letting a bunch of trivial, mundane boring stuff molder.

I am terrible at getting caught up in the Perfect Apostrophe trap. However, I’ve had it in my head that I am not one to get waylaid by jackassery, yet when I really think about it and look back on it, well, I am TOTALLY waylaid by jackassery on a regular basis. In fact, this sentence alone is starting several days after the previous sentence because, well, I was waylaid by jackassery. A combination of illness, accident, work demands and family demands all were in place to put two days between one sentence and the next. Sure, it’s hard to really say important family things or something happen to someone that you care about is jackassery, but to the task at hand that’s being interrupted and waylaid, well, to that task it is jackassery that is keeping the task from being accomplished. If you are Dr. Venture, generally it could be one of your kids being kidnapped by your villainous arch enemy the Monarch. If you are me, then it’s less your villainous arch enemy and more the vagaries of fate at the playground with your kid or spouse and the unpredictability of picking up a bug along the way to work or your work demands all of the sudden shifting toward things you couldn’t predict.  Indeed, when you have personal goals you want to accomplish and working through a series of tasks to accomplish them, it’s often seems like the entire world is The Monarch just waiting to kidnap one of your kids while you’re one your way to try and sell an invention to the defense department. In other words, damn near everything becomes the villainous arch enemy to that ONE THING you are trying to accomplish. When accomplishing one thing is your focus, all things that waylay your focus from the tasks necessary to accomplish that thing are jackassery.

The amusing part of me writing about this is that I don’t have anything to offer on how not to be waylaid by jackassery. It just happens. Once you or your bodyguard has rescued your son from The Monarch then you take a deep breath and you said “Now, where were we?” You look at what was happening before all the jackassery went down, climb back on board the X-1 and get back in the air to sell your inventions or stop an alien invasion or whatever it is you were doing before. Jackassery happens to everyone, failures and successes alike.

Feb 01

Measuring Attainable Goals

One of the key challenges I have in using the S.M.A.R.T. method of setting goals is the nebulousness of “attainability”. It is something that puzzled me because it seems like something that should have a scale.  And searching for an attainability scale online doesn’t garner very good results. But, the top result was actually useful because it came from a career development department at a university for engineers. The scale was broader than I liked, but it served as an excellent starting point for creating my own attainability scale.

My Attainability Scale

Attainability needs to be defined. I have determined that attainability should be measured on a scale of 1 to 5.

1 – Trivial Goal – that requires no effort to obtain and can be done almost when thought of and entered into the taske manager. A “DO IT NOW” Goal that can often be part of a set of tasks when working toward a Typical Goal. Might be simply considered a task, but can be thought of a small goal when motivation and encouragement based on completion of steps is needed.Everything starts with trivial goals. These are the foundation for reaching Transformative Goals.
2 – Typical Goal – Requires use of Focused Time to achieve and can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. Can often be part of a set of tasks when working toward a Stepping Stone goal.
3 – Stepping Stone Goal – A goal that requires Focused Time, some planning, some scheduling, several actions, some tracking of progress. Can often be an overall goal to reach when working toward a Milestone Goal.
4 – Milestone Goal – A goal that requires significant planning, scheduling, actions and tracking of progress but can be achieved over a period of weeks or months. Can often be a goal toward a Transformative Goal.
5 – Transformative Goal – Requires significant planning, scheduling, actions, tracking of progress, regular review of the progress and the Milestone achievements