Leadership optimize

The 10 most cryptic project management expressions

Project success requires clear communication among managers, team members, and stakeholders. Be sure you really know what's being said when you hear the terms on this list.

Employers continue to cite communications skills as one of the traits they value most in their employees. But that trait may be less sought in managers, who (in my experience) use a lot of slang terms and catchy phrases that can result in trouble if misinterpreted.

Knowing the difference between what is being said and what is really meant is critical. Based on my research and experiences, here are the 10 most cryptic project management terms and phrases and how to interpret them.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Manage the white space

The term "white space," first used in 1849 to mean "the areas of a page without print or pictures," has come to mean "an area between the work." That translates to vague or undefined responsibility and requires negotiating with another entity -- a department, division, vendor, or strategic partner -- to persuade them that they do indeed have ownership of a task or process that affects your project.

2: One-off

Webster defines this term as something "limited to a single time, occasion, or instance." That agrees with Wiktionary's explanation that it likely came into use from foundry work, when making reusable molds was costly.

Created to fill a need quickly and cheaply, one-offs can still last for years. Modern one-offs are programs, processes, or manual efforts that usually go well until the resignation of the owner or discovery by an overseer, like information security. When that happens, you'll need to find a way to formally and legally bridge the gap covered by the one-off or deliver the message to its users that they'll no longer have it.

3: Think outside the box

The origins of this phrase point to the traditional "nine-dot puzzle," which requires all nine dots to be connected by just four lines without lifting the pen. The solution (shown below) requires an extension of an implied boundary.

This phrase implies that some thinking has occurred but not the right kind of thinking. It really means finding a way to do something faster, better, or cheaper without the benefit of more time, tools, or money. That requires a solid explanation of all your alternatives because you may need to show that your solution -- if you can find one -- is the best, given the real-world constraint this phrase often represents: that no realistic options exist.

4: Workaround

Webster defines this as a "plan or method to circumvent a problem without eliminating it." The danger lies in the circumvention. How far, how deep, how wide you go to implement your "alternative solution" could be the difference between innovation and incarceration. Obey company policy and the law when creating a workaround. Remember that workarounds become one-offs, so if you end up creating one, suggest a time limit for it or even a future project to address the need for a legitimate solution.

5: Leverage

Defined as "the power to act effectively," this term has come to mean "using the results of someone else's work." That work could come from another person, project, or even another company (when it's another company, it's called "best practices"). That's great when it easily transfers to your project, your culture, and your customers. When it doesn't, be prepared to defend the modifications or rejections because the implied expectation with "leverage" is that it will be a complete, effortless, and free solution.

6: Facilitate

This literally means "to make easier." If you are asked to facilitate something, it likely means it is high time for progress or that what has been done to date isn't working as well as your boss expected.

Make sure the request to facilitate comes with the time and resources you need. If your intended audience emerges from your facilitation without the expected product (solid requirements) knowledge (how to gather requirements), or changed behavior (using the new requirements tool), you could be in trouble.

7: Take it offline

This generally means "don't discuss it here," which is a positive thing if the topic is important but is not on the agenda. But it can also mean "I don't want to hear about it." The only way I've ever been able to determine the difference is by later bringing it back "online" and being told again to forget about it.

8: It is what it is

This one was USA Today's Sports Quote of 2004. Writer Gary Mihoces called it "the all-purpose alternative to the long-winded explanation" for any coach or athlete. In the project world, it generally means "done" -- which really means any incomplete, incorrect, or inept result is to be left alone. Attempts to fix it, even if it is blatantly wrong, are forbidden, probably due to some political consequence unknown to you.

9: Do the right thing

Because "the right thing" can vary by person, corporation, or culture, this can be a dangerous directive. The manager or executive saying this often knows what the "right thing" is, either from past experience or directly from his or her manager. Make sure you know what it is by asking open-ended and nonjudgmental questions. Better yet, put it in writing as part of a project or process document so your immediate manager can refer to it before -- and after -- you do it.

10: Anything from the latest business bestseller

Moving the cheese, driving the hedgehog, and reaching the tipping point sell books but don't help complete projects. If you work with someone who seizes the latest phrase from the bestseller list, I suggest you do what a co-worker of mine once did: He asked a person who had access to the boss to check and see what business book he was currently reading. That way, they could understand what the boss was thinking and what he expected to hear. There's another phrase you may need to start saying yourself: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Resources

 

John Sullivan is a working project manager who writes and speaks on project and career issues.

 

48 comments
accenze14
accenze14

It helped me a lot to learn about the project management like me who does not have a capable of to performed. thank you so much. Great article keep going. architectural services

db625
db625

My favorite: "Moving forward". This is total code for, don't make me think about this, we're going to brush it under the table, we're going to pretend you didn't bring that up. You agree?

RB1955
RB1955

"If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em." Which is a not-too-veiled insult to acquirers-of-competitors companies. I am paraphrasing a little here, but W. E. Deming said that 94% of all problems in most companies are the direct result of management. I think a inverse correlary is: 6% of brain power is being utilized in management.

ggoodman
ggoodman

As a software developer and systems integrator, I have a different perspective on the risks inherent in workarounds. For us, it's not so much that a workaround may put you on the wrong side of the law. It's that (a) the workaround may depend on a system attribute or behavior that's an artifact of the system's implementation (often a shortcoming or flaw), but not something that's guaranteed to be preserved through subsequent upgrades, or (b) the workaround itself is undocumented (or inadequately documented) and therefore isn't supported or taken into account during subsequent rework of the system. As soon as a security hole is plugged, or an existing access control policy starts getting rigorously applied, or an underlying library is replaced with a "functionally equivalent" one (as defined by the original system requirement specifications), workarounds start to break. The way to avoid this, of course, is to design and document workarounds so they become a well-integrated and supported part of the system. At which point they become designed solutions, rather than workarounds.

bobk
bobk

The definition of this term seemed to extend to 'custom solutions' as if the world of vendor-provided software is the only route to IT business platform success. For those of us who work or have worked with SAP, Lawson, or any of thousands of "non one-off" solutions in the market, they carry their own baggage as well. Sometimes, a "one off" is the way to go.

jgmsys@yahoo.com
jgmsys@yahoo.com

For example, the near-ridiculous obsession with the word "synergy," which is often not even used correctly by our so-called leadership. Folks, if you're going to use a word, make sure you know what the heck it means first.

Snak
Snak

... is what gets innovation. You say that "This phrase implies that some thinking has occurred but not the right kind of thinking." I have a problem with 'the right kind of thinking'. If no-one ever thought outside the box, and stuck to corporate indoctrination, nothing would ever be invented and mankind would still be looking at forest fires wondering how we could use the red, hot stuff. Take any and all major scientific breakthroughs, or new products that change lives - all come from thinking outside the box.

sperry532
sperry532

"It is what it is." I've found it usually means "this is the way it is. It will remain this way. Accept it, deal with it, get over it, or get gone cause it ain't a-gonna change, not for you or anyone." An example would be whinging over an inconveniently-located piece of large equipment or a server rack. "It's really difficult to work on it" sez the geekling. "It is what it is," quoth the alphageek.

delphi9_1971
delphi9_1971

I personally hate it when none tech people use these two words. Makes me want to scream!

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

the fact that the author believes these phrases are actually unclear. One person believing it is unclear means it is (by definition) unclear.

cceporius
cceporius

Love this article, buzz words are my pet peeve. I think 'reach out to..." someone, i.e. the vendor, a manager, etc. What's wrong with just saying 'ask Bob'??? I second 'proactive' which means we are going to wait until something breaks then we'll say 'told you so'. All these buzz words just contribute to colossal amounts of miss-communication.

mr_m_sween
mr_m_sween

I absolutely HATE this term. I've never heard it used in a way that didnt assault my ears like a wet cat in a heated oven. The description given here makes it slightly less grating. Of course a lot of times I've heard it, it hasnt made sense given that definition either. I think my crowning moment was several years ago while listening to the VP of marketing go on about something. He used every buzzword and jargon I could think of and at the end I simply raised my hand politely and asked "What are you talking about?" This was when we realized that no one knew what he meant. It's nice when you have a respected track record of being blunt, occassionally brutally so, and management encourages it.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Us It types have to learn business schtick to communicate instead of using our technical jargon. Yet a PM whose reesponsibility is talk to us can spout goobledygook all day long and we have to figure out what he meant. Makes sense to me...

MomtoJustin
MomtoJustin

Look, I suggest we think outside the box: we need to manage the white space by leveraging our workarounds while being proactive with our faciliation. A rule of thumb about a one-off: It is what it is. Any cross-talk should be taken off line. Let's do the right thing, people!

mike.lambert@cps.gsi.gov.uk
mike.lambert@cps.gsi.gov.uk

How about "it's finished"? (I got the first draft out yesterday). Or "it's on schedule"? (yes, it is today, but it will be a week late this time next week) Or "it will be done by Friday"? (which Friday?) Or etc etc etc There's tons more. Maybe I am too old and cynical.....

creativenrg11
creativenrg11

but most of these terms are pretty clear. I get they're "management catch phrases", but they're used enough (at least here) that they actually do hold some sort of sway. now, put these into technical documents and/or instructions, and we have a problem. But for project-level discussions, i think they're certainly not cryptic. perhaps i'm jaded...

izzy_again
izzy_again

who keeps putting a box around it?

Meadowsong
Meadowsong

Thanks for the chuckles. Especially liked the RFx progression.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Except for, "actually". Just where in the hell do you get [i]that[/i] from? Do it neat and tight.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Leverage is the one word or phrase in that group that actually has a very specific meaning in business. To quote Webster's: 1 : the action of a lever or the mechanical advantage gained by it 2 : power, effectiveness 3 : the use of credit to enhance one's speculative capacity And according to Webster's the term goes back to 1830. Business generally uses it in the 3rd form -- which is a perfectly acceptable accounting technical description or term. All of which goes to show that articles which belittle the mis-use of jargon aren't necessarily above mis-using jargon themselves.

hkliesner
hkliesner

I wrote a whole sketch for a drama presentation using nothing but corporate buzz words...it was full of statements just like this. Thing is, while no one could make heads or tails of what we were saying, there was an actual coherent conversation with a real point.

Ron K.
Ron K.

I've been out of management for years and I see that they're STILL bouncing around the same buzzwords. B-o-r-i-n-g!

MomtoJustin
MomtoJustin

I think "leverage" would be another as well as the phrase "Work with me here".

JamesRL
JamesRL

Meaning its still "as far as we know" going to meet the plan. James

skale
skale

Including that type of terminology in doucmentation is not acceptable, but they do lend themselves to getting a poitn across in verbal communications.

wbranch
wbranch

I think the point isn't that the phrases themselves are cryptic, but that when they are bandied about by managers, their true meaning sometimes gets mangled. Thinking outside the box may mean getting creative to you, but your manager may use it to mean "Figure out how to do the impossible, under budget and on time." I think the real point of the article shouldn't be that these 10 phrases are the issue so much as clear communication in whatever is said is essential.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Thinking outside the box redefines the boundaries. While that can be useful, it would be just as nice, if not nicer, if the box was clearly defined, not a fuzzy blob with big pile of shite oozing out of it.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

bleep off. Bluddy Yanks can't speak the Queen's English anyway! :D (I like "actually" ... It goes well with my Tea, crumpets and proper beer)!

seanferd
seanferd

the definitions going back to 1830 are not congruent with the business jargon use of leverage, and certainly do not point to its use as a verb (late '50s, America, of course). Wrong word form for a verb. Both the sound of it being used as a verb and the intended meaning are grating. ...a perfectly acceptable accounting technical description or term. But the discussion is about general management, not accounting. None of this, however, takes into account that the problems with these buzzwords is that you can't count on them being used properly by anyone, even if he has just read an entire book defining the term. Plain English non-jargon/buzzword terms are used improperly enough as it is. I would agree that there is plenty of jargon which should be easily understood by everyone, but don't count on it. buzzwords are just that, though - buzzwords. Usually employed as meaningless bzzzbzzbzz by people with very vague thoughts.

josephlew
josephlew

The drama sounds funny to me. would you mind sharing a part or two of the script so we could all have a good laugh? :)

Old-Fart-IV
Old-Fart-IV

PMs use this term to let you know the project team that it is going to have to either deliver the product earlier, or the team will have to make-up for lost time. Software and systems development are not an ideal place to use this technique due to the complexity of the product being delivered. However, I have seen it used when the delivery date couldn?t be slipped ? Examples: 1) We need to deliver the product 2 weeks earlier than planned,or we are 2 weeks late in the schedule: Which activities can be shortened by doubling the current resources? Where am I going to find a SW developer and a SW QA Engr who can quickly get "spun-up" on the Business Requirements and start producing? My first choice is to borrow them from another project (the best scenario for my delivery, maybe not good for their delivery). Otherwise, get ready to spend lots of $$$ for ?outside? help, with the accompanying risk regarding their learning curve. 2) And the most famous ?dictator? edict: We can have them work extra hours and weekends to gain this lost ground. Famous last words for the creating crew burn-out, quality problems, along with low/no employee morale :) Crashing schedules is expensive (both in dollars and human capital), plus it is fraught with perils to the final product. It has its fans in certain industries that rely on manual labor to deliver the product ? especially when there are incentives for completing the project early.

Steve__Jobs
Steve__Jobs

Joking? NOT !!!! After 25 years of professional experience, that single word encapsulates my opinion of people who substitute verbal diahorrea for clear, honest communication.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Daytime highs in the 100s, overnight lows in the 50s.

seanferd
seanferd

baste all day, freeze after 17:00, especially if you are not in direct sunlight.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Don't even mention that word X-( Actually, we didn't really get any this year ... and I'm quite happy about that.

santeewelding
santeewelding

We should be melting here. It is July. But, that is not the case. I sleep bundled in a coat. Next, I suppose we will hear advisories... of snow.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Right now I'm not doing much beyond melting ... It's been a solid 34C up here for the last week with no break in sight ... (That's some 20F hotter than down there. Almost as hot as in your shop!) ]:)

santeewelding
santeewelding

In the first place? I can dig it. I am guilty only of taking you at your word. That is -- isn't it? -- what you do here? I thought.

seanferd
seanferd

It has been used that way for quite a while. I still find the verbing of the word to be rather clumsy. Lever is a verb. Leverage instantly screams "Noun!" due to the suffix. Whatever, language will change as it likes. :D It won't mind me.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

"We can leverage the current team dynamic." That, I believe is the use seanferd has a problem with; he's not alone. In the case above, the team dynamic resulted in a collective yawn and tune-out...

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Leverage is just not one of those words. At least I've never heard it used incorrectly. Mind you I tend to deal with either the banks -- who certainly understand the concept -- or with entrepreneurs and small business -- who are at the other end of it!

Kevj
Kevj

I made a comment recently in one of these forums that software makers seem to have extended the development cycle to the end users. When updates or fixes are needed, simply release an update which can be downloaded and installed in a few minutes. Meanwhile, the company starts receiving revenue toward further development.

Steve__Jobs
Steve__Jobs

I would call "Crashing" an unfortunate status but not a cryptic expression. it certainly beats the "white space" and "outside the box" junk.