March 11

Languagelab: Leveraging Your Synergies To Architect A Blue Ocean Strategy

Donald Sutherland “reaches out”

There are two words that annoy me like almost no others.

Two words that look so blameless and well intentioned, but are all the worse for that.

Two words that purport to bring us closer together, but actually encapsulate so much of what is wrong with how we interact today.
Those two words are …“reach out”.

Now I can imagine what you’re thinking. Of all the things to get exercised about, and of all the words to condemn, why pick on two such innocuous items as “reach out”?

Let me tell you why…

Reach out is among the most toe-curling examples of the modern-day scourge that is management speak. It infects corporate settings and business schools alike, concealing intellectual bald spots with linguistic combovers, and robbing words and phrases of whatever meaning they might once have had. Worse, management speak is increasingly creeping into everyday vernacular, consuming apparently sentient people like a latter-day Invasion of the Body Snatchers – only this time, rather than high-pitched screeching, it’s BUZZWORDS.

And management speak isn’t just hugely annoying – though it’s certainly that. It’s actually damaging and even potentially dangerous. Here’s why:

1) It’s ugly, affected and, more often than not, invents or mutates terms for which PERFECTLY GOOD ENGLISH WORDS ALREADY EXIST. Indeed, by dressing a sentence up in clichés or technical-sounding gibberish, the speaker is conveying little more than the absence of anything worthwhile to say.

Take the – clearly exaggerated – title of this rant, Leveraging Your Synergies to Architect a Blue Ocean Strategy.

Where to begin?

For starters, this beauty contains two examples of the grating modern habit of changing nouns into verbs. Now before we go any further, I’d be the first to acknowledge that sometimes new ideas require new verbs for convenience or accuracy. There are very good reasons people say they are going to “google” something; namely, looking for stuff via search engines is still a relatively new activity and for most people (myself included), that activity is synonymous with using Google.

Why, then, in the name of all that’s holy is it necessary to “leverage” or “architect” something? Hint: it’s not. We already have a stack of words that convey these meanings, often with added nuance to cover different situations. For “leverage”, we have exploit, make use of, capitalise on, take advantage of, and many more. And why architect when you can devise, create, make or design?

I’m well aware that the kneejerk retort to this will be: “language evolves and these words add depth to the English language”. I’m not too much of a linguistic pedant (though, of course, no one ever is in their own estimation) but what really gets me about these newbies is their intent. They are nothing to do with expanding choice or enriching the language, and everything to do with dismal attempts to bask the speaker in a self-administered glow of savvy and relevance.

Next up, “synergies”. This, like so many words that have been polluted by management jabber, actually has a useful meaning, broadly expressed by the idea of “the whole being greater than the sum of its parts”. In the reckless hands of modern-day management “gurus” or financial types, it’s come to mean pretty much any type of activity or resource that two parties can “leverage” when they work together.
As for blue ocean strategy, again, in some far-off, more innocent time, this phrase actually had a specific, even original meaning. Today, it is dullard shorthand for a plan with even the vaguest pretence of innovation (see also “thinking out of the box”).

2) Management speak throws up the most excruciating kind of euphemisms, attempting to inject glamour, excitement, or intimacy into places where they simply don’t belong.

The business world today, for instance, is awash with gurus and “six sigma black belts” – very few of whom, one assumes, can actually levitate or split pieces of wood with their bare hands.

As for my old friend “reach out”, at what point did it become acceptable to use this ghastly phrase in place of, say, “call” or “send an email”? The intention here, as with so much management speak, is to transform what are very humdrum or irritating actions into something more intimate and noble.

Thus, I’m not cold-calling you to sell you stuff you don’t want. And I’m certainly not filling up your inbox with annoying requests. Good heavens, no! I’m reeeeeeaching out, because I’m here to help and I want to form a special, lasting bond.
It’s nauseating. And it’s precisely this kind of newspeak that makes people so cynical about PR, politics and business more generally.

3) Now for the dangerous bit.  In its worst, most pernicious form, management speak can be a means for managers to worm their way out of responsibility for their actions. Let me give you an example I experienced first-hand.

A couple of years back, during my MBA, I took a course on change management. During one of the sessions our lecturer (a very fine fellow, by the way) was addressing issues that can arise among staff when you’re trying to implement change in a department or organisation. Talk to them, he implored us, as communication is key to bringing people along and getting them to join up to what you’re doing. If, however, they can’t or won’t adjust, you may very well have to consider “releasing their talents to the market”.

After dashing out the room for air and scrubbing myself from head to toe with a bassine brush, I wondered, what was it that was so vile about this phrase?

The horrific implication, I realised, was that you wouldn’t be doing anything so crude as firing. On the contrary, by “releasing” the errant employee, you’d be giving him the chance to fulfill his true potential elsewhere while simultaneously enriching the market with his skills. Hurrah!

Firing, sadly, is a fact of life. For various reasons, there comes a time in a manager’s or company’s life when they have to let staff go. When it happens, it will almost invariably cause hardship and upheaval. Which is precisely why weaselly words such as “releasing talents” are so revolting.

You are not helping them. You are not “releasing their talents”. You are firing them, and it should always be a tough decision.
So when you’re in your offices, I beg you:

Pool your collective strengths, don’t leverage your synergies.

Fire your staff, don’t release their talents onto the market.

And for the love of God, call, email or text, but please, PLEASE don’t reach out.