Outdated Catchphrases

by Krishna on January 4, 2010

A hilarious take from Ron Rosenbaum:

But don’t call it outside the box anymore, please. By now, the injunction to “think outside the box” has become inside the box airline-magazine management-guru cliché. Please, some of you should get back into the box, please, and take your quirky Power Points with you. What about thinking outside outside the box? Not outside the box but not inside the box again, either. Transcend the box.

I am sure some of you remember this classic puzzle. The first time you see the puzzle, learn the solution and hear the words “go outside the box”, it is very powerful. But after a few times, it sounds banal. And when you hear it from someone who is totally uncreative, you actively start hating the phrase.

Unfortunately, that is the fate of all such cute catchphrases or ideas. Most of the best ones have been ruined by overuse in popular culture. And others have been tainted by people who have forgotten  how human beings talk.

Things like, “Give your 110%”, “Work smarter, not harder”, etc. are good concepts, but are now hated management clichés because too many bad managers have used them to absolve themselves of their responsibility in managing projects better. This also goes for observations such as Parkinson's Law and the Peter Principle. When they are misunderstood, they can be very harmful in the hands of a bad manager with too much time in his hand and very few brain cells in his head.

Incidentally, have you noticed that good managers tend to be the most productive and bad managers the most destructive when they are least busy? More time for good managers means that they have been able to delegate their tasks well and they have more time to spend at a higher level (learning, analysis and planning). A bad manager feels too insecure to be seen with free time and so they start micro-managing or implementing something without understanding it well.

Why do bad managers use hated catchphrases so frequently? I guess it has to do with intellectual laziness. Poor managers may work very long hours, but they all never seem to have any time to sit and evaluate whether they are doing the right thing. Using management speak makes them feel more important and wiser, giving them a false sense of control and correctness. Plus, the authority inherent in these phrases and ideas makes them very convenient to beat down ideas from the underlings.

On the same topic, some good stuff from Malcolm Gladwell (emphasis mine):

[…] “The Dark Side of Charisma.” […] argued that flawed managers fall into three types. One is the High Likability Floater, who rises effortlessly in an organization because he never takes any difficult decisions or makes any enemies. Another is the Homme de Ressentiment, who seethes below the surface and plots against his enemies. The most interesting of the three is the Narcissist, whose energy and self-confidence and charm lead him inexorably up the corporate ladder. Narcissists are terrible managers. They resist accepting suggestions, thinking it will make them appear weak, and they don’t believe that others have anything useful to tell them.


Mike Marshall January 4, 2010 at 11:14 pm

Bravo. If you're going to sling these things around, you should at least understand them.

One that I could live without is the mis-use of Pareto's 80-20 rule to justify completing only 80% of an objective. As in "We've got 80% of it done, that's the old 80-20 rule, so we're pretty good." Except that's not what Pareto said at all. Inevitably, the 20% that you skipped is the hard stuff that you should have been focusing on all along.

Kevin Rodrigues January 5, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Another kind is the Impressionist manager who will always want to impress the higher management even if it makes his subordinates lives a living hell.

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