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The Origins of Office Speak

Here’s your ‘buzzword bingo’ card for the meeting,” Wally says to Dilbert, handing him a piece of paper. “If the boss uses a buzzword on your card, you check it off. The objective is to fill a row.”

They go to the meeting, where their pointy-haired boss presides. “You’re all very attentive today,” he observes. “My proactive leadership must be working!”

“Bingo, sir,” says Wally.

This 1994 comic strip by Scott Adams is a perfect caricature of office speak: An oblivious, slightly evil-seeming manager spews conceptual, meaningless words while employees roll their eyes. Yet, even the most cynical cubicle farmers are fluent in buzzwords. An email might be full of calisthenics, with offers to “reach out,” “run it up the flagpole,” and “circle back.” There are nature metaphors like “boil the ocean” and “streamline,” and food-inspired phrases like “soup to nuts” and “low-hanging fruit.” For the fiercest of office workers, there’s always the violent imagery of “pain points,” “drilling down,” and “bleeding edge.”

Over time, different industries have developed their own tribal vocabularies. Some of today’s most popular buzzwords were created by academics who believed that work should satisfy one’s soul; others were coined by ...

Putting Veterans on a Path to Careers

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., is worried about the unemployment rate for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. At a recent Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee hearing, he noted former service members face major hurdles in translating their military service into meaningful civilian careers.

Kaine, who has a son in the Marine Corps and has heard hardship stories from veterans while on the campaign trail, successfully pushed major sections of his proposed Troop Talent bill into this year's National Defense Authorization Act. The goal is to get service members “the credential that a civilian official understands," he said.

This effort already is taking hold across the country. At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., for example, a partnership involving trade unions, vocational schools and community colleges offers separating soldiers and airmen the guarantee of employment when they successfully complete special courses before leaving active service.

But what is going on in Puget Sound is only a small start at helping veterans—particularly the enlisted and certainly those without a military retirement—move into careers, not just jobs.

The stakes couldn't be higher now. More than 1 million service members will be leaving the military in the next five years, and they ...

You're Looking for Help in All the Wrong Places

Several decades ago, a team of experts built the world's most expensive mirror. It was for the Hubble Space Telescope, and the mirror was the key to focusing light that predated the stars, capturing images that had never been seen by human eyes. The precision was measured in millionths of an inch. If the mirror's surface were the size of the Atlantic Ocean, the surface would need to be so smooth that no wave would be taller than 3 inches.

When the telescope launched in 1990, the images came back blurry. The mirror was the wrong shape by 2 percent of the width of a human hair. It couldn't focus light with the required precision. The telescope was only able to do about half of the work that it was launched to do, and in 1993, NASA burned several hundred million dollars on a repair mission.

What went wrong? When journalists Robert Capers and Eric Lipton investigated, they discovered that the team of designers, engineers and technicians at Perkin-Elmer resisted help from experts. When initial tests of the mirror pointed to potential problems, the engineers refused an independent test. To safeguard against errors, the company appointed a ...

Why Alignment of Staff and Manager Satisfaction Scores Matter

I write often about the importance of employee satisfaction and commitment as a way to understand what is really happening in your organization. Paying attention to employee survey data will give you insights into where your employees are experiencing stumbling blocks and can help you learn things about your organizational processes that you may otherwise not have known.

Another data element to consider is how aligned your management is with front-line employees. Considerable disparities in the viewpoints of these two groups could mean they don’t agree on key issues the organization faces—and if they don’t agree on what needs to be addressed, it will be harder to drive change.

While it is common for managers to view their organizations more positively than staff because managers typically have more information and influence on the decisions that impact their work, extreme differences should get the attention of your agency leadership and rouse them into taking a closer look.

That begs the question: How big a disparity is too big?

The Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte examined this issue as part of its Best Places to Work in the Federal Government analysis. We created staff/manager alignment scores for ...

Technologies Designed to Save Time Are Helping Us Waste It

Technologies like email and videoconferencing, designed to save time, end up helping people waste more of it. A new study by Bain & Company published at the Harvard Business Review finds that the way we order our lives and structure our business operations, and particularly our meetings, wastes a spectacular amount of time.

Organizations account for how money is used. But time, for the most part, is barely tracked and sucked up by meetings and preparing for them. Things like email, conference calls, and online calendars make scheduling and attending things so easy people don’t stop to think before they do it.

The statistics from the study are pretty incredible:

  • A study of Outlook schedules at one company found that a weekly meeting of an executive committee created a total of 300,000 hours of additional work and meetings over the course a year for the participants and their teams. That included meeting time, as well as preparation and followup.
  • 15% of an organization’s collective time is spent in meetings, a percentage that’s gone up yearly since 2008
  • On average, senior executives spend more than two days a week in meetings with more than three people
  • Senior executives ...