Un-packing business jargon while deep diving organisational ecosystems

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It was one of those defining moments in the Strategy Day’s pre-planning, planning-day meeting, when the newly minted ‘C level’ from across the ditch was busy mind-mapping and un-packing her thoughts. As I slipped in and out of consciousness, head slipping from propped palms, a phrase suddenly jolted me back to the present. Did she just say, felt leadership? “Isn’t that harassment,” I opined?

For a precious moment there was silence, but you know you’re in trouble when only the bean-counters snigger, so what happened next not only lifted the lid on the world of new business-jargon for me, it also highlighted a salutatory lesson…….if you want to avoid fading into ignominiousness you had better get a grip on the buzz worthiness of the buzz wordiness otherwise you will green-light your options to becoming a conduit to the tailwinds…. You with me?

When the C Level finally spoke again (it must have been two painful seconds of silence) it was to point out that apparently I was unwilling to action deliverables (new yellow sticky notes were now being slapped up on the butcher’s paper ‘think’ sheets) because I was too granular, that is, busy deflecting attention from the task at hand by over analysing the micro meta-system, while refusing to acknowledge the organic development of the organisational ecosystem, which after-all, was the thing traffic lighting the CEO’s dashboard! Needless to say by this point she had lost me. But as she went on to explain about where the rubber really hits the road, (more Blu tack and butcher’s paper here) once a traceability matrix had been sorted for blue-printing, I began to feel I was bogged in a quagmire of brutal, building-site/automotive visual analogies, which for someone who had worked at a tabloid newspaper for over a decade was like awakening an addiction to a narcotic.

But who thinks up this stuff? Typically HR professionals, public policy experts and teachers are the worst offenders. But ever since Don Watson’s, Weasel Words, the practise of inventing and re-inventing ridiculous business jargon has enjoyed Triffid-like growth and is now seeping its way into the everyday. There is even an on-line dictionary of Ridiculous Business Jargon for the truly intrigued.

Even more unsettling though is the fact that there is a sociological underscore to all of this and to explain it I headed straight to where my well-thumbed copy of An Introduction to the English Language, by Koenraad Kuiper and W.Scott Allan, (Palgrave Macmillian; second edition, 2004). Apparently what we are talking about here is commonly termed, ‘compounding morphology.’ In corporate culture, these are words that are designed to subliminally ingratiate employees into a business culture and/or isolate those who are not up with the lingo. For example, Kuiper and Allan say:

Compound nouns in English have the main emphasis on the first word. For example, ‘whitewash’ has the main stress on ‘white’ rather than ‘wash’. While this is not always the case, it certainly is generally so. As compound nouns are binary in structure they only ever consist of two constituent lexemes.(e.g ball-park, boom-gates) They also will usually have a head constituent which determines the syntactic properties e.g. ball/boom. They can also exist as verbs, e.g. drill-down (as in drill-down to grit level), also adjectives e.g. ice-cold, hell-bent.

Even the process of transforming an innocent noun into a business verb has a name, it’s called verbing, as in, ‘action those deliverables.’ The lesson is straightforward: learn the jargon to be part of the team. If you don’t you’re out – at least of the loop. But such jargon is also inherently internally focused, disruptive of meaning rather than constructive, exclusive not inclusive. 

Here are some gems I’ve picked up in my travels recently.


Coopetition (n.): This snappy word is doing the rounds a lot at the moment. It refers to the struggle between departments within an organisation which is supposed to have everyone on the same page and aligned to mission.

Flash Propogate(ad.v) Very effective when said with an American accent. Powerful visual – quick growing plant/tree alternative or updated version of “plant the seed”

Guinea Pig (as a verb): A staple with public health policy makers e.g. ‘let’s guineapig that. -

Boom-gate (n.): The brilliance is in its’ high visual impact. A boom-gate or a block to progress.

Populate (v.): Means to write stuff in a document

Socialise (v.): Send the document around to everyone – usually via email.

Cascade (ad.v.): This means to disseminate one person at a time it’s for people are over saying disseminate. Put’s one in mind of a waterfall image – cascading water rather than sending out a mass email.

Co-create (ad.v): When you can’t be stuffed doing the work yourself, you call a meeting to co-create, and then take the results to the CEO so only you get the credit. HR love this one!

Greenfield (adj.): This beauty can also be used as a verb as in; ‘we will be greenfielding a number of options,’ – it refers to having a ‘clean slate’ :

Sunshine Enema: The spin given to the survivors of a redundancy campaign

Blamestorming (v.): A meeting to discuss failure to find a scape-goat.

Felicity Costigan is a former feature writer and editor for News Ltd and Fairfax, including a long stint as Fashion Editor of the Herald Sun. She left journalism to work in communications and consulting, including for not-for-profit enterprises.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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