My Two “Favorite” Business Buzzwords

Over three decades of management consulting, no two terms have continued to surface more, given me more business projects, occupied more of my time and yet seem utterly devoid of any actual meaning than these: leader (or leadership) and strategy. Upon hearing them from many individuals and reading about them again and again, I’m often reminded of McBeth: these words are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” 

The buzzwords surface everywhere in business, sometimes in overwhelmingly disparate contexts. “This guy is a great leader,” “she really needs to learn to lead,” or “you need a leadership experience.” Another context can be even more career dangerous. “I’d like to promote him, but he isn’t strategic.” Or, in one of the most lucrative coaching jobs of my career: “She’s open to working with you, and she really needs to become more strategic.” Now retired, she was one of the most well-placed women in American business. In sum, these buzzwords are like love. Everyone knows they exist, but few can define them with precision. And sometimes, like failures in love, they can’t execute either.

If you’ve done your research and some thoughtful, critical analysis, you know that thinking strategically is typically confused with planning. Similarly, leader or leadership is a context-driven catch-all. What it means coming from one mouth is not what it means coming from another. And what it means in one firm is not what it means in another. Like Humpty-Dumpty, words mean just what any person chooses them to mean — neither more nor less.

And that means when training you’d better dig deep into both the manager’s use of the term, as well as the specific context and culture of the term. Sometimes that will get you nowhere. But if you fail to clearly define terms and get buy-in, you’ll be wasting your time—and losing your reputation.

I’ll get to the definitions at the end of this post. But, first, I’m more interested in how buzzwords come into existence. Understanding the cognitive process by which we create buzzwords can produce far better insights about all kinds of important terms and processes.

How do buzzwords come into existence?
The easy answer to the question is simply that a lot of people use the words—and the words get used over and over again because of differing business need. That really doesn’t explain the issue.

Cognitive scientists and the artificial intelligence people are especially interested in my question. The answer is about memory and story. Literally it’s about how the brain works.

We archive our knowledge not in ideas, logic or abstractions, but in stories. We tell stories because we like to hear stories, our own and others. But what’s not transparent is that we need a context to help us relate to what we’ve heard or what we already know. The story provides just that context. And what makes us intelligent is our ability to find out what we know from our stories—when we need to know it. Our stories have been gathered, more unconsciously than consciously, over the years. Words and buzzwords surface from those stories. 

Of course, you don’t always get stories to illustrate the meanings of words. We use dictionaries. Dictionaries, however, are for educated readers. Instead, here’s how it happens: when we first learn to talk, we learn what each word means because we’ve heard the word used to describe situations we’ve observed or taken part in. That same process follows us into adulthood. 

Roger Schank gives a superb illustration of this process. When children (for example) are told that they have been “inconsiderate,” they have no idea what that word means. They only know what they have done. In order to learn the word, they must construct a story that describes their own actions to themselves. Then, when they hear the word again, they must compare the former story with the new story that is unfolding before them. So they learn the skeleton story that underlies the word “inconsiderate” by comparing the two versions. In fact, we do learn the meaning of complex words through stories.”

Furthermore, like children, we tell the story to ourselves, making the story very difficult to dislodge. Though the story is not a mindset, it works on a smaller level much like a mindset. Inadequate or wrong mindsets take a lot of time, analytical thinking and the challenge to change beliefs. Buzzwords will need a new story to begin to dislodge the old story. It’s no wonder that leadership and strategy are fuzzy buzzwords that without a great deal of highly accurate clarity, signify nothing.

Two definitions
In spite of all the research and writing on leading and leadership, Warren Bennis still has the best and most relevant gist of leadership: Leadership is the well-educated ability to move organizations from current to future states, create visions of potential opportunities for conversations, instill within employees commitment to change and instill new cultures and strategies in organizations that mobilize and focus energy and resources.You’ll need to see that in a new story.

Defined when organizations were still very hierarchical and industry driven, today’s definition brings two important caveats: leadership can and must exist in all levels of an organization in order for organizations to build and maintain competitive advantage. That implies that some leaders may be but a couple years out of college or in a semi-retirement stage. Because of the heavy project nature of today’s business, leaders surface when projects require them. They rarely have vested power: their power is bestowed by teammates.

And, in spite of all the research and writing on strategy in the past twenty years, Michael Porter (who stands on the shoulders of Peter Drucker and Theodore Leavitt) remains seminal in his understanding of strategy and strategic thinking. Strategy is the process of perceiving and creating positions that woo customers from established positions or draw new customers into the market. Planning and execution are different matters.

It’s important to understand that business terminology evolves. However, it’s just as important to understand the original contexts and business needs that created and defined terminology. Those refined definitions of leadership and strategy tell us what to develop in the talented folk, and also what to dislodge and destroy out of the stories and buzzwords that we all carry around in our personal archives.

In the best analysis of what leaders do, Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind write that leadership is conversation. So too, strategy is conversation. For most people and business students, the notion of conversation is hidden in plain sight, but that’s what actually goes on in the creation and definition of the two terms. We learn our stories from conversations. Sometimes, the conversation results in poor and wrongheaded buzzwords. But it’ll also take conversations and new stories to challenge and define strategy and leadership precisely within every corporation.

Roger Schank, Tell Me a Story, (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press), 1996. Though not well-known in business, Schank has a storied background in artificial intelligence, cognitive science and education: Chairman of Computer Science at Yale and director of the Yale Artificial Intelligence Project, Director of the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, and Chief Educational Officer at Carnegie Mellon University’s Silicon Valley campus.  Currently in an entrepreneurial position related to educational reform and K-12 education.

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