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Becoming the Villain: On Innovation, Language & Buzzwords

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Few things are as ubiquitous to the modern corporation as the use of buzzwords. With what seems to be a never ending stream of management fads, the lexicon of the typical corporation changes with the frequency of the latest fashion trends.

We use the term “buzzword” to relate to a concept that is overused, silver bullet in nature and creates confusion. Parodies such as Dilbert or The Office do an excellent job of calling out the nonsensical nature of buzzwords and corporate doublespeak. While it is easy to dismiss the existence of buzzwords as merely another form of corporate folly, exploring the origin and evolution of buzzwords can help shed light on the challenges of innovation and success in the corporate world.

Despite the ambiguity and confusion characterized by the typical buzzword, it is important to note that before the term became a buzzword, it was used to describe a concept, idea or phenomenon. When a new concept or idea is formed, a mismatch between the new construct and existing language can be created. Language may be forced to play catch up by creating, combining and repurposing words or phrases. The words “social” and “network” existed prior to the creation of Friendster, Myspace and Facebook, but the combination of “social network” filled a gap that these innovations created in language. On a related note, the limits of language serve as a natural disadvantage to the innovator. Creating a new construct is hard enough, finding the right words to describe the construct only adds to the challenge.

It is not to say that these gaps are always filled perfectly, or even filled at all. Human knowledge often exceeds the ability of language to describe constructs with precision. In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb describes a very striking historical example in ancient Greece. Despite the wealth of knowledge by the Greeks, only three colors were recognized in the Ancient Greek language: black, white and red. The lack of a work for blue explains Homer’s puzzling reference to the “wine-dark sea.” This is not to say that the Greek people only could distinguish between three colors; their physical capacity was surely similar to our own. The point is that the distinction in language was not recognized. To use a modern example, two different shades of color could both be described as “purple” by one person, but separately as “lavender” and “magenta” by another person with more discerning language choices. Both individuals recognize the physical difference, but only the latter recognizes the linguistic difference.

What later became a buzzword, a source of nonsense and confusion, initially arose as a means to improve clarity and precision in language. Before synergy became a catchall to justify nearly any action by shrewd executives, the term helped simplify our understanding and description of the interaction between two or more variables that are positively correlated with each other.

But if buzzwords started as a means to improve clarity, what happened? The answer can be illustrated by understanding the evolution of buzzwords through capture theory. In this regard, the success of the construct is the cause of its demise. As concepts such as synergy, six sigma and strategy earned successes in their initial domains, their language was captured by other domains in order benefit from their credibility. As described in The World’s Newest Profession by Christopher McKenna, the lineage of the management consulting industry is not traced back to the scientific management of Taylorism, as commonly understood, but rather to the accounting firms of James McKinsey and others. As these firms struggled to describe their new service, they borrowed heavily from the most exciting and prestigious discipline of the 1930s, engineering. Rather than calling themselves “management consultants” or something we might recognize today, multiple “management engineering” firms sprang into existence. The benefit that these firms earned through credibility by association was paid for through an obfuscation of the word “engineer,” which today refers to anything from technology (software engineers) to trash collection (waste management engineers).

The success of the original construct creates a rush to imitate and capture the credibility of the original construct through association. Unsuccessful or non-credible concepts either die or remain in their original domain. As the construct is applied to an increasingly diverse set of circumstances, initial clarity becomes inevitable confusion.

If there is a path to moving beyond buzzwords, it starts with moving beyond the continued search for silver bullet solutions. There is nothing wrong with allowing successes to live and die in their own domain. In the words of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” The emergence and existence of buzzwords are a stark example of the latter.

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