Harvard: where managers learn to speak like that

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.

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7 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

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  2. Brad Shorr says:

    The fact this atrocious snippet of business writing came from Harvard astounds me. At this moment my brain is frozen trying to get its arms around the technique of “nonadaptive change” without mixing up my neurons or my metaphors.

  3. Clare Lynch says:

    Brad, you clearly need to diagnose your bandwidth. You’ll never be able to challenge people’s familiar reality with your frozen brain-arms.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Clare Lynch. Clare Lynch said: Harvard study: Do you have the bandwidth to lead adaptive change? http://bit.ly/48zJEE […]

  5. Chris says:

    Clare, thank you. Another super piece. It’s a shame that the original writers didn’t realize that more words usually mean less clarity. They might have noticed that changing the way people work can be difficult if you have nothing worthwhile to say to them.

    I wonder what dangers such leaders face? Blank looks?

    Perhaps nonadaptive-change is the new menace preventing the economy from recovering faster? Far more scary than a plain old rut.

  6. Brad Shorr says:

    Can we at least agree that a quartet has more bandwidth than a trio?

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