Let the jargon flow

SINGAPORE - The words tumbled out of my mouth so freely I was barely aware of how ridiculous they sounded.

"Well, we are going to get some pushback from them, so we are going to have to circle back at some point and make sure there's agreement."

I was talking to a colleague in the newsroom, who looked at me funny after that.

He was too nice to say anything, except to give me a nod of agreement and a knowing smile. Pushback?

Circle what?

A wave of sheepishness washed over me. Never mind the company or the department, my transformation was complete.

One day your boss calls you to the office and assigns you to work with some consultants the company has hired.

Two months later, you've turned into a member of some blue-shirted cult. Except you are not just carrying its card, you're carrying the entire deck.

You might have spotted colleagues in the workplace similarly afflicted, albeit temporarily, with the fever. Consultants are now, after all, quite a common sight in the corridors of corporate Singapore.

I've personally worked with consultants on and off now for almost 20 years, at every job that I have been in.

For the most part, they do good work.

By this I mean that they do manage to look at old problems with new lenses and map out fresh strategies for the future.

And their greatest value is to make disparate and often warring departments work together, sometimes bringing together staff who have worked for years in the same organisation without so much as an introduction to each other.

So while some may regard consultants simply as cost-cutters, I find them to be great for implementing the kind of ideas that would have been far too difficult to push through the thicket of inter-divisional politics and oneupsmanship.

But they sure do talk funny.

And it takes some time before you can easily make sense of what they are trying to say (or not say, as is often the case).

They seem, for a start, to be obsessed with oceans - "blue ocean", in particular, because this is apparently where there will be plenty of fish.

This is opposed to other bits of the ocean which have turned red (or some other non-blue colour) because all your competitors have congregated there for a savage feast and the opportunities will soon be exhausted.

In going to where the fish are, you'll need to take the occasional "deep dive". So prepare to get wet, but the important thing is not to "boil the ocean".

Because boiling the ocean is going to the opposite extreme - doing too much analysis that is not going to have much effect. Besides, it's probably outside the scope of work to be done for the agreed fee.

Another key misunderstanding I have found in dealing with consultants over the years has to do with "high-level" analysis, which is actually low-level analysis.

The analysis is "high-level" because it is rough-and-ready calculations or conclusions done from a high place where you can't really see the details and there is a need to "drill down" (or do a "deep dive", geddit?).

But when the details actually come, there is no corresponding "low-level" analysis, of course, because that would actually start to sound bad and not worth the millions being paid for it.

Instead, what we now have is greater "granularity" on a subject - a word which never fails to make me yearn - in a middle of some boring meeting on work "flows and streams" (see how the oceans have become rivers now?) - for my TV set. 

Especially when consultants go on to worry about the "optics" of an announcement and go about trying to provide more "colour" to back this point or that.

There is even a sub-category of consultant terms for meetings, where an exact number of minutes is judiciously assigned for each topic. That's because certain people have a "hard stop" at this time or other, when they absolutely need to leave.

To ensure we can keep to the time limit, we need to "pre-wire" the meeting's attendees by "socialising" the content with them beforehand.

And anything that's left unresolved at the meeting has to go in the "parking lot" for now.

I could go on. A "quick question" is the approved way to interrupt a presentation and certainly beats the clumsy "um" or "er". Of course, the question doesn't really have to be quick or easy to answer.

The right way to summarise or clarify something is to say "let me play this back". Especially if it's "mission critical" that everyone understands what to do.

Know the difference between "facetime" and "downtime", and separate the "quick win" from the "slow-cooking" initiative that will really "move the needle".

Oh, and say "at the end of the day" a lot. Constantly, at the start of every other sentence.

You'll find many glossaries online with long lists of these terms. Many are penned by consultants who are self-aware enough to acknowledge the eccentricities of their craft and the humour that is inherent in practising it daily.

In 2003, a team of consultants from Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu developed a free software programme called Bullfighter that worked like a spell-check.

It would identify what it called "bullwords" (ha!) in documents that made no sense to anyone but consultants, and auto-corrected them.

"It's sort of a 'physician, heal thyself' kind of deal," said the team leader, Chelsea Hardaway, at the time. When Deloitte asked for suggestions on possible "bullwords", the team received more than 10,000 submissions.

I take a more relaxed view on the issue. Jargon is evident in almost any profession, religion or interest group and forms part of a language game that really should not be bound by any universal rule.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do and resist the urge to smack the next MBA-toting consultant that utters the words "secret sauce".

So gimme a heads-up on when you want to close the loop so that we are on the same page.

Ping me, okay?

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