Certain phrases that are part of the workplace are just too good not to use. Certain phrases capture the essence of what’s going on in the organization so perfectly, that further explanation is never needed. The best phrases don’t come out of the CEO’s office, or from consultants or off of the framed vision statement on the wall. The best phrases come out of the bowels of the organization. Management may not even know they exist.
The most creative and cut-to-the-heart-of-the-matter phrases all seem to have something to do with getting things done. Call it implementation, call it execution, call it program management or change management – the name doesn’t matter. The lack of things getting done generates good phrases.
Here are four of my favorites, all from people who do real work.
- Rotating bald tires – Or, wow, this is hard work but all this effort will go nowhere and nothing will change. When you rotate bald tires, you still have four bald tires.
- Building our own coffin. This phrase means we are doing a lot of work and the result will be we are out of a job. This phrase usually comes from project teams involved in cost cutting.
- Same old horses, same old glue. Or, the same people will always generate the same result. Always applies when cost cutting means all the low paid people are eliminated but no one whose photo is on the org chart is.
- And my favorite, “where the rubber meets the air”. Meaning the wheel never hits the ground – the opposite of “where the rubber meets the road”. All the talk is good but nothing will ever get implemented.
Lots of other phrases circulate through a workplace but most are not suitable for publication. With so much going on in the workplace, why does the lack of getting things done generate so much creativity in the catchphrase department? The answer is simple – FRUSTRATION. Nothing will make a team or an individual more frustrated than the sense of working on something that will never get implemented, that nothing will ever change.
Execution of a plan is the most difficult activity of any organization. Strategies and plans can be copied. Who cares? Effective implementation is the secret sauce in any organization and requires discipline and making hard decisions. It’s difficult because it requires changing behaviors – which most people don’t want to do. It requires changing out people – it depends on which side of that change you are on, but most people don’t want to see change in this regard. It also requires making difficult decisions that are by their nature tough to do. Implementation requires courage, which can be hard to come by in some leadership ranks.
I do know that where there is effective implementation, phrases are not necessary because results don’t require phrases. And people generally like their jobs more.
Be alert to the phrase du jour at work, it may tell you more than you think.
What phrase captures daily activity in your organization?
“I took this job for just a year when I was right out of college. That was thirty years ago.”
“This was just a position I took until something better came along. I was 22 and in the 10 years since, nothing has come along yet.”
My message for those entering the real world is that those first steps out of school matter. The journey has begun and it’s a glorious journey. No longer are you dealing with major decisions like taking English 401 or Psychology 301. You are dealing with decisions that can shape a life. I know because at 22, I sat on the ocean in a lifeguard roost and tortured myself over with those life decisions.
The decisions all come at once when you still might be recovering from commencement hangovers. So be careful and make choices based on what you know and what you can imagine. Most importantly, make the decisions. A few examples of life-forming decisions many are facing at that magical age of 22 best described as “things”:
- The Career Thing: Sure, everyone will have 10 careers during a lifetime but first steps really do matter when it comes to careers. How you spend those first few years after college could have a bearing on your future. It’s better to have travelled than to have watched Seinfeld re-runs for a few years. For some careers, (like with big-time consulting firms) it’s tough to get in unless you start right out of school. The first job can dictate a career.
- The Location Thing: Going home may be easy but it’s a big world full of exciting adventures. Don’t miss that opportunity to be a new person in a new place. More importantly, don’t get stuck. Where you spend your 22nd year could dictate where you spend the rest of your life. Choose carefully.
- The Love Thing: What about that college sweetheart? Will he or she be the one who got away — or the one who I am glad I got rid of? How does one know? If I knew the answer to love-related questions I would tell you, but I don’t. My message is that it is one of the many big decisions a 22-year-old faces. It’s torture but the decision will shape a life. Everyone knows this one.
One simple way to look at decisions is to create a numerator and denominator. We do it all the time and don’t realize it. For example, if I leave to go skiing on Friday night with all that traffic (the numerator), is the enjoyment of the skiing worth it (the denominator)? If the equation is way out of whack, don’t go skiing. Or, if I can make a bundle of money in New York for the next five years (the numerator) but I hate big cities and my family won’t join me (the denominator), that’s an equation that will lead to disaster.
So what about me at 22? The same big decisions were right in front of me. Did sitting in a lifeguard stand staring at the ocean for a few months prepare me for all the decisions about careers, location, and love? Maybe. It was a job that had an end, so I knew I had to do something on the career front, and I did. Graduate school beckoned, and it prepared me for a life in consulting and higher education. The location decision was always dictated by my interest in warm weather. That interest was keenly developed on the beach. It’s as simple as that.
The romance decision might be the most difficult of all for the 22-year-old. My summer on the ocean at 22 was not very helpful in that category so I have no advice other than some things are meant to be. Some things are not.
Advice for the 22-year-old is simple:
- Learn how to make decisions. Make them.
- Know that those seemingly small decisions at 22 can impact a life.
- Maintain a sense of adventure in all you do. Take risks
- Spend zero time on the couch wishing you were still in college.
And enjoy the ride.
How many times have we heard the phrase, “First, we’ll go after the low-hanging fruit”. Arrrgh. It’s a big mistake. Do not go after the low hanging fruit. Two reasons jump out.
First: Low-hanging fruit does not exist. The mere phrase implies that there are certain things that are easy to do. That there are goals or thresholds, which are easily achieved. I’ll do that, no sweat. Wrong! All the low-hanging fruit was picked long ago, if it ever even existed. Could have been during the last layoff or the latest CRR update or the TQM phase or when the new CEO arrived. It doesn’t matter when or under what mantra. Just the mention of low-hanging fruit sets unrealistic expectations that there are easy and simple things to do.
Second: The low-hanging fruit implies which things we should do first. That is, the fruit that is easiest to reach should be picked first. Not so. Often, the first things that must be done are the most difficult. Quick wins can be good but if they are at the expense of important wins, then we are not making progress. Ask any fruit picker, they will routinely begin picking at the top of the tree,where the fruit is hard to reach but it has been exposed to the most sunlight and is usually the ripest. That’s what they pick first. It makes sense to pick the low-hanging fruit last, since it requires more time to ripen
What do we really know about low-hanging fruit that can impact the organization? On the positive side, we might walk by the low-hanging fruit every day and ignore it. Once picked, it shows that change is about to happen. Organizational low-hanging fruit can include simple things like fixing something that’s been broken for a long time. When fixed, everyone notices the change. But that “pick” needs to be followed up by more significant change. Always choosing the easiest thing to do can be seen negatively too. Sometimes it makes sense to go for harder options that take longer and where the effort could have a big payoff.
Selecting the easiest targets with the least amount of effort might get things started but may not amount to much. And, unless you live on an orchard, your encounters with real low-hanging fruit don’t actually come very often. So before you start talking about low-hanging fruit, remember it may not be the easiest or the right thing to do.