Archive for September, 2009

Scenes from corporate life

Friday, September 25th, 2009


Scenes from corporate life

Friday, September 18th, 2009


Harvard: where managers learn to speak like that

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

I’ve always been suspicious of management theory. As someone who spent six long years doing a properly researched PhD at a properly old university in a properly useless and obscure subject, it’s hard not to find all those pseudo-academic, multisyllabic explanations of how to get stuff done at work faintly ridiculous.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was when a reader alerted me to the following publication, created in affiliation with the business school of one of America’s top universities:


Regular readers will spot at least three words and phrases in there that have already appeared on my long list of words that should be banned. So let’s dispense with them first, shall we? They are:

Impact (verb) – as you will know by now, most of the time this word is used by people who are too lazy to learn the difference between “affect” and “effect”.

Bandwidth – a silly piece of corporatese, rescued in this instance only by the provision of a definition. Better still, for those of us who like to laugh at the more ridiculous examples of the office lexis, said definition doesn’t disappoint. Bandwidth, it turns out, is “your repertoire of techniques for moving adaptive change forward in your organization”. So now you know.

Key learnings – corpspeak for “important lessons”, which elicits in the reader the “key learning” that the user of the phrase “key learnings” is semi-literate at best. (Heck, even as I type, my autocorrect wants to stick an apostrophe in the non-plural that is “learnings”).

But there’s still more to savour in this wonderfully ridiculous piece of copy. Take the whole concept of “adaptive change”, for a start. I’ve no idea what “adaptive change” is – let alone what it means to “lead” it or to “move it forward”, but I strongly suspect it to be tautological.

And while we’re on the subject of tautology, does anyone else detect repetition in the phrase “the self-imposed limitations you place”?

But you’ll probably forgive such linguistic indiscretions, under the flattering gaze of three authors who are able to perceive the “complex system that is you”. I can’t decide if this phrase sounds new-agey (a reference to your chakras, say) or pseudo-biological (an allusion to the links between your gut and your liver and the fine balancing act performed by your kidneys, perhaps).

I wonder if it’s the latter, given that the guide being described will enable you to “diagnose” your “repertoire of techniques”. What, you’re still talking about your “skill-set”? The corporate idiom has moved on, my friend. You’re an artist now – the Maxim Vengerov of office life – with a whole “repertoire” at your disposal. It’s just a shame that in this mangled mixed metaphor your repertoire, unlike Vengerov’s, has also become a disease.

Never mind, at least you’ll be able to draw on techniques that “span the spectrum from graceful and inspired rhetoric to in-your-face confrontation”.

For what better way to engage your colleagues in the process of adaptive change than by terrifying them with your schizophrenic ability to flip between a sweet-tongued Cicero, always ready with an inspiring aphorism about adaptive change, and an effing and blinding bully trained in the management school of “just do it because I said so”.

But, as the authors argue, changing the world – and people’s familiar reality – is difficult, dangerous work, requiring you to get outside your comfort zone.

Perhaps my PhD was the easy option after all.

What are your personal oxymorons? (Yeah, yeah, “oxymora” for you pedants out there)

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Reading another blogger’s post on irony and paradox, I was reminded of a particular type of paradox: the oxymoron.

An oxymoron is defined as “a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction”. The most commonly cited example seems to be Tennyson’s “faith unfaithful kept him falsely true”.

Sometimes, however, phrases are labelled oxymoronic for humorous effect, the most well-known, perhaps, being “military intelligence”.

So in response to Robert Hruzek’s group writing project, “What I learned from laughter”, I’m taking a break from whinging about bad corporatese to present a light-hearted but highly revealing list of my personal oxymorons.

What did I learn? That I’m still an old curmudgeon. That – amazingly – I grew up to be the coolest kid in the class. That I like food more than I like children. And that I better not find myself with a black marker pen near any corporate art. Read on . . .

Skiing holiday
I’m sorry, but any holiday that requires you to spend most of your time a) cold and b) engaged in near-frictionless travel down a big slippy-slidey hill is not a holiday – it’s torture.

It’s particularly not a holiday when taken en masse, as so many skiing trips are these days. Being the only person in a large group of your peers who is rubbish at engaging in near-frictionless travel down a big slippy-slidey hill is just a cruel reminder of school sports. I guess at least this time round I have the option of spending all day sipping margaritas in the jacuzzi. (Hey, it turns out I was the cool one at school after all!)

Sports news
The content of your typical sports report is this: “Group of not-very-bright men kick round object into square object more times than other group of not-very-bright men”. And this is on the Today programme because . . . ?

Street art
If it’s in the street it’s not art – it’s graffiti.

That’s not an insult, by the way. Give me gloriously grubby Rome – where every other ancient monument sports some anarchist scrawl – over the sanitised streets of London, any day. Besides, by way of art, the latter are invariably decorated with anodyne works of corporate nonsense commissioned by some large developer as an unwanted gift to the local community in return for a shameless land grab.

(Yes, Land Securities, I am talking about that rubbish stripy panel you’ve put under the bridge at Blackfriars in London’s SE1. At what point did you not realise it looked like a carrier bag from Paul Smith? Or was this a deliberate attempt to attract high-end retail into those buildings of breathtakingly inhumane scale that you’ve thrown up nearby).

Child-friendly restaurant
If it’s child-friendly, it’s not a restaurant. It’s a nursery that happens to sell mediocre food. Unless you’re in Italy, of course, where all the children are restaurant friendly – i.e. they can sit still for the duration of a meal without crying when presented with garlicky stuff, food that still has a face attached to it, and tentacles that were still twitching only minutes before they hit the plate.

Folk music
I can’t say it better than one of my heroes: “There’s a reason folk music is so bad – it was written by the people.” Thank you, Tom Lehrer.

So, I’ve fessed up to my gripes and prejudices – what are your personal oxymorons?

Introducing the edible typo

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

It’s one thing to let a spelling mistake creep into a typed document, but quite another to go to the trouble of baking a cake, covering it with marzipan and carefully icing the thing – only to pipe some garbled message on your lovingly crafted creation.

To see what I mean, do check out the latest post on the truly wonderful Cake Wrecks blog.

Bad copy never tasted so good!