Product leader Marta Rolak looks at the danger to clear communication of corporate buzzwords and suggests some ways to neutralise their threat
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. William Goldman, The Princess Bride
Imagine this situation: You are in an important meeting with the “best of the best” of your company, discussing the future of a product that has been attracting a great deal of internal attention. One Voice seems to dominate the conversation. The Voice makes some big and wise-sounding statements worthy of a senior product leader that s/he is, talking about KPIs, the North Star, and the importance of collaboration. Teams should always remember that the only way to design a product is through adopting a holistic approach. There should be some careful mapping out of aspirational customer journeys end-to-end in pursuit of the vision, and always with a strong user focus.
After the meeting ends, the Voice is satisfied with a job well done. Some meeting participants walk away convinced the Voice said some really smart things and leave it at that, maybe because they are not directly responsible for the development of the product and so are not invested in it. Others feel a slight discomfort, not sure they have understood much from what the Voice said, which is a problem considering the Voice is their product leader.
The most incredible thing is that many of the people in both groups will then go on to repeat the terms they heard the Voice say, regardless of whether they truly understood them and agreed with the concepts.
You will then be able to observe a ripple effect of the buzzword bingo: While seemingly everyone around the company will be talking about end-to-end customer journeys and a holistic and collaborative approach, very little will change about the product itself and about the way product teams work with each other.
This is the true face of the buzzword bingo: It creates an impression that greatness is about to happen, it fools many into thinking they are aligned and pursue the same objective, while in reality many people simply don’t know what any of the buzzwords mean in practice. Nobody dares to ask and admit they aren’t sure and so it becomes more convenient to just repeat the buzzword and change nothing. Everyone makes an assumption about what others have meant; miscommunication and misalignment ensue.
Why we play buzzword bingo
For starters, some people use buzzwords with completely pure intentions. They may be referring to concepts that in their opinion are universally understood and simply use the terminology that seems to be accepted by most. Where this goes wrong though is when a person makes an assumption that everyone around them uses the same definition of the term in question. This is something we should never take for granted.
Others may choose trendy terms because they want to be perceived as knowledgeable about a certain topic, or because they want to “belong” to a group. This is as simple as repeating what a person we admire says in the hope it will create a perception we are somehow affiliated with them (ergo should become just as impressive).
Buzzwords can also be used to cover up our lack of knowledge or laziness. For example, if there are topics we have no intention of really exploring but want our colleagues to think we are up-to-date, repeating a few trendy terms seems like an easy way out.
Sometimes, buzzwords are simply fun to say. Customer-centric – yeah!
While buzzword bingo tends to make the rounds across the entire company, product and technology teams seem to be particularly prone to it. Fast-paced environments, employee turnover and the resulting influx of new joiners all offer perfect conditions for trendy terms to thrive.
The damage caused
Whatever the reason for our participation in buzzword bingo, the resulting damage is palpable.
Widespread buzzword bingo leads to stagnation and missed opportunities; this is because the decision-making process becomes particularly challenging when people don’t understand what they need to do and why. As a result, they either don’t make any decisions at all or make wrong decisions.
Buzzword bingo makes it difficult for individuals and teams to connect with each other and work together. It is impossible to have a meaningful conversation and uncover any areas of disagreement (or agreement!) if team members are using words they don’t understand in the same way.
What can you do
When you hear multiple buzzwords repeated around you more and more often, it is time to act. By far the easiest way to expose buzzword bingo is by asking for real-life examples where it’s possible, and for plain language definitions and simple sketches where it’s not. You need to get to a point where trendy terms go hand-in-hand with clear definitions of what they stand for.
When you hear someone talk about the need to design end-to-end customer journeys, simply ask for an example that would illustrate a well-designed journey and its impact on the customer. This could be, for instance, about the ability for a business to repeatedly deliver outstanding service to a returning customer. When a frequent flier with special dietary requirements comes back to an airline to book another flight, the airline should recognize it’s a returning customer and provide them with a way to easily book another flight with their usual customisations. The airline should also ensure the dietary specifications are passed on to the airline staff, the catering company, and then finally the airplane crew so that the passenger receives a meal as per their usual specification seamlessly.
You hear “We need to collaboratively design our “experience vision”? Firstly, make sure it is clear that everyone understands what “experience vision” is. It’s simply an explanation of what kind of experience we aim to offer to our customers. It can take the form of a written statement, it can be a drawing or it can be a video.
The best real-life example I know of an experience vision in a video format is this oldie but a goodie from Apple. Then swap the word ‘design’ for a simple “make” or “come up with”. Last but not least, define what “collaboratively” means in this case. Are you being asked to get involved directly or just for feedback? It’s important to know.
Define, define, define
By far the best and perhaps most challenging thing to do is to lead by example and start with yourself and the language you use: Resist the temptation to jump straight to a buzzwordy term and instead define it by describing, or better yet showing what you mean. Only label it with a term afterwards. If you can, document your description somewhere too, for future reference.
It certainly takes more time but this is the way to disarm buzzword bingo. Once you and your colleagues have started using the same definitions of whatever terminology happens to be trending, you will easily uncover any areas of misalignment that might otherwise prevent you from working well together towards the same goal, and from making progress. Buzzword bingo will lose its negative power and you will be able to use trendy terminology guilt-free.